(photo credit: AP [file])
So farewell, then, George W. Bush, the US president whom our own outgoing prime minister insisted was the very best man to have in the White House as Israel sought to make peace. Bush was unique and "amazing," Ehud Olmert told The Jerusalem Post in an interview at this time last year, in that while even Israel's best international friends see our future "in terms of the '67 borders... [and] the division of Jerusalem," the 43rd US president thought of Israel in terms of "'67 plus."
And welcome, in his place, to Barack Obama, the agent of change who, according to his senior adviser David Axelrod, "intends to engage early and aggressively with diplomacy all over the world... I think you'll see him act quickly."
Conventional wisdom has it that Israel chose to engage aggressively with Hamas over the past three weeks because it knew, give or take the odd United Nations Security Council abstention and diplomatic spat, that the Bush administration would fundamentally support its right to protect its civilians from rocket attack even at the cost of widespread damage to Gaza.
Conventional wisdom further has it that Israel is intent on getting its troops back out of Gaza by Tuesday's inauguration, provided the new fragile truce hasn't been too rudely shattered by rocket fire, so that Israel-Hamas is not the most pressing item on the incoming president's foreign policy hot list.
Israel's worry, according to such wisdom, was that Obama, who has said he was "deeply concerned" about the loss of civilian life in Gaza and Israel, might not fully back the resort to force and might even break international ranks by opening a dialogue with Hamas. After all, this is the man who has said he will depart from Bush's policies and entertain tough diplomacy with Iran and Syria.
Within the Obama camp itself, however, there is an adamant insistence that the new president has no intention of legitimizing Hamas. When Britain's Guardian daily ran a story 10 days ago suggesting that his administration might deal with Hamas, and the Post carried a brief report on this online, the Obama transition team's chief national security spokesperson, Brooke Anderson, fired off an e-mail that quashed the notion flat: "The President-elect has repeatedly stated that he believes that Hamas is a terrorist organization dedicated to Israel's destruction, and that we should not deal with them until they recognize Israel, renounce violence, and abide by past agreements," she wrote to the Post. "The President-elect's repeated statements are accurate. This unsourced [Guardian] story is not."
By way of elaboration, Anderson appended two quotes from candidate Obama's campaign last summer. "The long road to peace requires Palestinian partners committed to making the journey," ran the first. "We must isolate Hamas unless and until they renounce terrorism, recognize Israel's right to exist, and abide by past agreements. There is no room at the negotiating table for terrorist organizations."
The second quotation has been much recalled elsewhere in recent days, in the light of Operation Cast Lead: "I don't think any country would find it acceptable to have missiles raining down on the heads of their citizens. The first job of any nation-state is to protect its citizens... If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing."
But if Israeli anxiety seems misplaced as regards Obama's empathy with Israel over the Kassams and his antipathy to Hamas in Gaza, his attitude to the future of the West Bank may indeed prove to pose concerns and challenges, and not only for the most strident and uncompromising supporters of the settlement enterprise.
Writing in London's Sunday Times this week, the commentator Andrew Sullivan asserted that Obama "does not want to get into a war of words with Israel before he even takes office, but he shows every sign of tackling the Middle East the way he has defused America's culture wars. He will try to prick the passion and lay out a rational solution."
That solution, Sullivan went on breezily, consisted of "a two-state compromise, a roll-back of settlements, an international force on the border with the West Bank, a cessation of terrorism, and financial compensation for displaced Palestinians seeking a right of return to Israel's pre-1967 borders."
To listen to Nicolas Sarkozy in Jerusalem on Sunday night, this kind of Israeli-Palestinian deal, indeed a wider regional "great final peace plan," is there for the taking, if only Israel would "run the risk of achieving peace."
It is unlikely that the pragmatic Obama is as ready as the French president to ignore such inconvenient realities as Hamas's enduring dominance of Gaza, its vast support among ordinary Gazan and West Bank Palestinians, and the failure to date of even the relatively moderate Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas to publicly espouse viable positions for a two-state solution.
Nevertheless, Europe will be pushing for a final deal and urging increased American pressure for compromise on both Israel and the PA. Many prominent European leaders, moreover, will be arguing to the new US administration that the shared interest in thwarting Iran's nuclear drive requires progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track - to keep relatively moderate Arab states on board, and to deny Iranian-backed Islamists like Hamas and Hizbullah a key recruiting tool.
In terms of the contours of a permanent accord, Obama, in the brief interview he gave the Post when he visited Israel last July, showed an absence of any Bush-style instinctive sympathy for an expanded Israel.
On settlements, he said "Israel should abide by previous agreements and commitments that have been made, and aggressive settlement construction would seem to violate the spirit at least, if not the letter, of agreements that have been made previously... There are those who would argue that the more settlements there are, the more Israel has to invest in protecting those settlements and the more tensions arise that may undermine Israel's long-term security."
And on the more general question of Israel's permanent dimensions, he observed that "Israel may seek '67-plus and justify it in terms of the buffer that they need for security purposes. They've got to consider whether getting that buffer is worth the antagonism of the other party. The Palestinians are going to have to make a calculation: Are we going to fight for every inch of that '67 border or, given the fact that 40 years have now passed, and new realities have taken place on the ground, do we take a deal that may not perfectly align with the '67 boundaries? My sense is that both sides recognize that there's going to have to be some give."
Those statements would imply that Israel can expect to find the incoming Obama administration unsympathetic, as its predecessors have been, to any expansion of settlements, and probably more critical than was the Bush administration as regards broken Israeli government promises to dismantle illegal outposts.
In a recent New York Times column, Thomas Friedman suggested that the Obama team's focus "should be on creating a clear choice for Hamas for the world to see: Are you about destroying Israel or building Gaza?"
This would require diplomacy, Friedman elaborated: "Israel de facto recognizes Hamas's right to rule Gaza and to provide for the well-being and security of the people of Gaza - which was actually Hamas's original campaign message, not rocketing Israel. And, in return, Hamas has to signal a willingness to assume responsibility for a lasting cease-fire and to abandon efforts to change the strategic equation with Israel by deploying longer and longer range rockets."
From an Israel now watching Hamas declaring its Gaza victory and vowing to return with a vengeance to importing and home-producing ever-more potent rockets and missiles, Friedman's assertion that "that's the only deal. Let's give it a try," rings pretty hollow. And one doubts Obama and his advisers will endorse this approach.
But he will certainly be pressured by his European colleagues to twist both Israeli and PA arms to accelerate two-state diplomacy, and he will do so from a perspective that plainly lacks Bush's "amazing" sympathy for a permanent Israeli presence in the West Bank. The outgoing Israeli prime minister, of course, was himself more than ready for dramatic territorial concessions; his successor may not be similarly disposed.
As much as the European leaders' Jerusalem gathering on Sunday was a stand-by-Israel photo op, it was also an unprecedentedly vigorous "let's push for a deal" plea to the new America of Barack Obama. Sarkozy actually made the request explicit in his remarks. "We can't wait any longer [for a peace accord]," he declared. "We hope the United States will provide the necessary guarantees."
Sullivan noted wryly on Sunday that "If any fight could remain totally immune to Obama's moderation, it is surely the Israeli-Palestinian death match."
We are about to find out.