Obama now confronts an even more divided Middle East.
By YOSSI ALPHER
The Gaza war rendered an Israeli-Palestinian two-state peace agreement more difficult and more distant. And it probably changed the incoming American president's order of priorities in ways the government of Israel - both this one and the next one - will have to adjust to quickly and flexibly.
The Israel-Arab related issues that Barack Obama will face upon assuming the presidency now begin, unexpectedly, with the ugly unfinished business of Gaza. The efforts being made to ensure that rockets and other ordnance can no longer be smuggled into Gaza have yet to bear fruit. It is lamentable that it took an ugly war to prod Egypt and the international community - led by the United States, which signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel in this regard on the eve of Obama's presidency - into acting on this issue. But nothing has happened yet, and if Obama wants to avoid another round of fighting in Gaza, he will have to ensure that the effort succeeds.
By the same token, there is only a temporary cease-fire in and around Gaza, the IDF is still deployed inside the Strip, and the Gaza passages remain closed to all but humanitarian aid. Here too, the road to renewal of the fighting is short. One way to ensure that the ceasefire holds is for Obama to reevaluate the heavy restrictions that Israel and the Quartet, with Egyptian and PLO support, placed a year and a half ago on contact with Hamas and on open commerce with Gaza. This war demonstrated that Hamas, even if (hopefully) defanged, is here to stay. Obama, the new leader on the block, is well situated to effect a new departure with regard to engaging Hamas - just as he intends to engage Iran and Syria - and opening the Gaza-Israel passages to commerce, thereby reversing a foolish and counter-productive policy.
The Gaza post-war humanitarian situation, too, will need Obama's attention. As matters currently stand, the provision of western aid - intended not only to help Gazans rebuild but to counter Iranian aid and influence - requires a PLO presence in Gaza, which Hamas may or may not be persuaded to concur with. This issue may dovetail with Egypt's hopes to bring Hamas back into unity government talks with Abbas' PLO. If those talks succeed, they could within the year produce new Palestinian elections that Hamas might win, thereby putting paid to any near-term aspirations to negotiate a two-state solution. Those who speak approvingly of "Palestinian unity" should now beware of what they wish for.
THE CONVENTIONAL wisdom in some quarters holds that the Gaza war will oblige Obama to award the Israeli-Palestinian peace process higher priority on his Middle East "to do" list than he originally might have intended. I doubt it. Obama will quickly discover that the war weakened Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). And Israel's Feb. 10 elections are liable to produce a new Israeli government less interested in removing settlements and negotiating a final status agreement than its predecessor or, if interested, no more capable.
Meanwhile, Syria beckons. The prospects for a Syria-Israel peace process weathered this war well; the only casualty may have been Turkish mediation, reflecting the vociferous anti-Israel pose struck during the war by Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan. If the ranks of militant Islam in the Middle East were struck a blow in this war by the damage done to Hamas and by Hizballah's refusal to open a second, northern front, a successful Israeli-Syrian peace process would make a far larger contribution by blunting Iran's drive for hegemony in the Levant, weakening Hizballah, contributing a quiet Syrian-Iraqi border to facilitate a US withdrawal from Iraq, and removing Hamas' headquarters from Damascus.
This would be good for Obama's Iran and Iraq agendas and, by weakening Hamas, good for his Israeli-Palestinian agenda. Of course, success with Syria and Israel is far from a certainty. But it is definitely more feasible under current circumstances than success with Abu Mazen and the next Israeli government.
Apropos Turkey's performance during this war, Obama now confronts a Middle East even more divided. Egypt, backed by Saudi Arabia and the PLO, cooperated closely with Israel and reestablished its traditional claim to courageous Arab leadership, while Israel reinforced its role as primary regional military power. On the other hand, Qatar and Turkey seemingly sided with the Iran-Syria-Hizballah-Hamas camp and Jordan sat on the fence. Obama's Middle East strategy requires a large measure of regional cooperation; in this regard, his job just became a little harder.
The writer is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.Bitterlemons.org
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