Obama after Gaza

The fighting in Gaza does not change the fact that there are no simple solutions.

The reactions to the fighting in Gaza that erupted in late December can be broken up into three broad categories. Predictably, there were strong outcries from the pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli camps. More cynical observers, however, saw the fighting as just another chapter in a conflict that will never be resolved. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has persisted for 60 years, with some tracing its origins back to 1909 . Yet with all of that history, the intractable nature of the conflict is often underappreciated. Those who defend Israel are labeled supporters of Zionist oppression and the killing of children. Criticism of Israel is tantamount to supporting terrorism or is anti-Semitic. Those taking more neutral stances are, apparently, guilty of moral bankruptcy. The offensive in Gaza was, in part, fought globally. Protesters supporting both sides staged rallies. The Internet hosted both reasoned âÄî if scathing âÄî discussion as well as childish invective from both sides. Unfortunately, the latter was just as prevalent as the former. The Israeli-Palestine conflict has been organic, evolving through varying narratives and political dynamics. Palestine began in 1948 as a Pan-Arab cause, giving way to Palestinian nationalism in the mid-1970s, and finally becoming the nationalist-Islamist hybrid it is today. One the Israeli side, a highly volatile political system has hindered any serious attempts at negotiations. Israeli governments have always been a patchwork of parties put together to form a majority. Often, conservative parties withdraw from a government in protest over issues regarding Palestinians, thus forcing elections. Frequent violence by Palestinians then plays into the hands of Israeli security hawks. Many have seen the latest round of violence and the horrible suffering of Gaza as reason for President Barack Obama to make a Palestinian state a priority. The near-term prospects, though, are surely bleak. Not only is mistrust by both parties at a high, currently there are no legitimate negotiators on either side. Though domestic support for the Israeli government is at a high following the fighting, elections loom that many expect the hard-line Likud to win. The Palestinians, split up among areas governed by Hamas and Fatah (in the West Bank) lack a unified voice with which to talk to Israel. Ever since Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza, there has been sporadic fighting between Hamas and Fatah. The problem deepens when American and Israeli officials have deemed Hamas a terrorist organization, and thus not a valid negotiating partner.

Great expectations

One of the less visible tragedies of the Gaza fighting was the breakdown of talks between Israel and Syria. The Palestinian problem cannot really be divided from the rest of the region, as it is a lightning rod among Arab nations and is tied to broader geopolitical concerns. There are those who plausibly argue that the Palestinian conflict can be resolved without broaching IsraelâÄôs concerns about Syria and Iran. Ultimately, that does not seem possible. An ill-acknowledged fact is that Iran is a big player in the peace process, though not directly. The arming of Hizbullah , HamasâÄôs irredentist cousin to the north in Lebanon, worries Israel. IranâÄôs materiel support for Hamas is often exaggerated. But it has seized on the opportunity to assert regional hegemony by rhetorically supporting a popular Arab cause that Arab governments have been unable or unwilling to address. Working on a peace plan that does not take into account regional concerns will merely create ways for spoilers to disrupt the process. Doing so will be an enormous undertaking, and any American president will be forced to spend tremendous political capital to do so. A trend of U.S. involvement in the conflict is that presidents have habitually only made a public push for peace at the end of their term. Bill Clinton was an exception, making an effort in 1993, but it was a fortuitous exception rather than a model to be followed. Then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was heavily discredited âÄîhe had vocally supported Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was simultaneously putting more effort into the secret meetings that produced the Oslo Accords , a preliminary peace agreement that has never really gotten off the ground. He was assassinated for doing so. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert caused a furor when he made comments suggesting the Israeli tail had wagged the American dog by blocking international criticism. The belief that Israeli interests have held sway over American foreign policy has long been the fuel of conspiracy theories for years. American-Israeli relations were founded during the Cold War out of mutual interests and shared cultural values. Yet America has not done enough to press Israel on issues that damage any peace prospects, namely the ever-expanding settlements into the would-be Palestinian territory. One Israeli fairly pointed out that Americans tend to look for absolute solutions, rather than slow, alternative outcomes. Nevertheless, a higher percentage of Americans opposed IsraelâÄôs actions than ever before. It is hard not to assume Israel took advantage of the presidential transition when the offensive ended the day Obama took office. The august Anthony Cordesman , a brilliant Middle East strategic analyst, put it best: âÄúIf Israel has any plan to use U.S. or other friendly influence productively, it is not apparent.âÄù St. JamesâÄô Street welcomes comments at [email protected]