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The recent invasion of Gaza is likely to have an impact on Barack Obama-Israel relations, both for good and bad.
Hamas's provocative attacks made it very difficult for Jerusalem not to respond. The government, through Egypt, tried on several occasions to convince Hamas to stop attacking southern cities. But that failed, as did the siege of Gaza.
Apart from Hamas's provocations, the tacit agreement of the Bush administration was crucial for the start of Operation Cast Lead. The former US president had his own reasons for sanctioning the attack. By not attending, Hamas had damaged Bush's plans to make the Annapolis conference a success. There was also Bush's contempt for the Iranian government, which along with Syria he blamed for assisting insurgents in Iraq.
As part of efforts to leave a legacy in the war against terror, Bush sanctioned an attack against Syrian territory by US Special Forces in late October 2008. This worried the Iranian government that Bush might sanction Israel to launch a similar attack against its nuclear facilities.
This is most probably why Iran supported Hamas's provocations. To Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Hamas was a diversionary target used to protect Iran's nuclear program by drawing Israel into war until Bush left office. In that sense, the Iranians saw themselves as successful.
However, judging by the anger displayed by Teheran, Khamenei did not expect to be isolated so blatantly by Arab governments, nor did he expect Israel to suffer so few casualties. Teheran wanted a repeat of the 2006 war against Hizbullah, but did not achieve it. This is why instead of the 33 days it took to end the fighting in Lebanon, on January 15, only 19 days after the war started, Ali Larijani suggested there be a cease-fire, and Hamas went along four days later.
SHOULD THE cease-fire hold, that would mean that the recent assault has reinstated Israel's deterrence against Hamas. This would be bad news for the Iranian government, which had counted on using Hamas's attrition-style warfare and its influence over the organization as a bargaining chip with the US in negotiations between the two sides. In other words, Israel's reinstated deterrence means Obama could enter the negotiations with a stronger hand.
On the other hand, the consequences of the Gaza operation, especially the fury which it has ignited in the Arab world, could also create problems for Obama's intentions to support Israel. What Israel sees as a justified response to Hamas' attacks is seen as overt and brutal use of force in the Arab world, including moderate countries such as Saudi Arabia. This view was reiterated by Prince Turki al-Faisal. In a recent opinion piece in the Financial Times, he warned that Saudi patience is running out and that US failure to alter its policies in the Middle East could threaten links between the two sides. This is a warning which Obama cannot ignore. Any damage caused in US-Saudi relations could have severe repercussions for Washington's economic interests and strategic standing in the Middle East.
This means that Obama will have to repair the stance of the US in the region by making overtures to the Arab world. This includes putting strong pressure on Israel to freeze settlement construction, and that the concept of "natural growth" for West Bank settlements will become a red line. It is also likely that Washington will apply pressure to assist PA President Mahmoud Abbas by removing check points.
When Barack Obama declared that "the world has changed, and we must change," part of the expected alterations will be US approach in the Middle East. This means that the Israeli government will have to change some of its policies as the price for maintaining its special relationship with the US.
Although the right wing, expected to win in the upcoming elections, may not find America's new approach to its taste, it may realize that it has no choice. Likud would serve its own interests and those of Israel-US relations by working with Barack Obama. The recent Gaza operation showed that, for now, Israel cannot make peace with its enemies. However, it still has the opportunity to work with its friends, and who better than the US.
The writer is a Middle East analyst at the Tel Aviv-based Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company.
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