Obama’s Options for Gaza

Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations

January 19, 2009

Barack Obama promised during his election campaign that he would pursue a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from Day One of his presidency. The Gaza crisis has now turned that interest into an urgent requirement while making progress even more difficult. Nevertheless, in this crisis, as in the many other challenges the new President will face, there may also be an opportunity, which he can turn to his advantage.

The President-elect has wisely used the cover of “one President at a time” to avoid taking a position on the deepening Gaza crisis, but there’s not much sand left in the hourglass. Very soon, he and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, will have to hit the ground running with an initiative that shifts the media focus from whether Obama is going to distance himself from Israel to how diplomatically adept his new team is. And since he doesn’t yet have that team in place, the challenge is even greater.

Silence the Guns

The immediate objective is a sustainable cease-fire. That may be possible in the early days of the new Administration because both Israel and Hamas may be ready for it by then. On the eve of the Feb. 10 Israeli elections, neither Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni nor Defense Minister Ehud Barak–both of whom are running for Prime Minister–will want to bear the costs or consequences of a full-scale invasion and prolonged occupation of the refugee camps and cities that constitute Hamas’ strongholds. On the other side, Hamas does not want to lose control of Gaza. For both sides, this war has always been about renegotiating the terms of the cease-fire that had held for five months.

The terms of a new truce will need to include: no rocket fire on Israeli civilians, no offensive Israeli operations, an international mechanism for enforcing a ban on smuggling offensive weapons, Palestinian Authority (PA) involvement in the control of open passages, and large-scale humanitarian and reconstruction assistance funneled through the PA rather than via Hamas.

Negotiating the cease-fire package should be the job of the Secretary of State; the President’s task is at the higher level of branding his Administration’s approach to resolving the larger Palestinian problem.

This is urgent because Islamic extremists–from al-Qaeda to Hizballah to Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad–have gained great advantage from the anti-American anger in the Arab and Muslim world that the Gaza crisis has brought to a boil. They had feared that Obama, with his appealing narrative and middle name, would calm the waters and so dilute their influence. They now see an opportunity in the Gaza crisis to brand Obama as no different from Bush.

The Big-Picture President

A commitment to resolve the Palestinian problem also takes on new urgency because the potential Arab partners in this effort–from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia–need to demonstrate to their irate populations that pro-American moderation and reconciliation can actually provide a better future for the Palestinians. Israelis too need to see that there is an alternative to the deepening dread of hate-filled Islamic extremists on their borders who are backed by an Iran intent on acquiring nuclear weapons.

President Obama therefore will need urgently to paint his vision of a comprehensive resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, summoning all leaders of goodwill to the task–perhaps suggesting they convene in Washington to declare their common intent. He will need to announce a series of mechanisms for achieving it, including: resumption of Israeli-Palestinian final-status negotiations, rebuilding of the West Bank and Gaza economies and PA security capabilities, initiation of U.S.-sponsored direct negotiations between Israel and Syria, and operationalizing the Arab League peace initiative. And he should put this into the even larger context of his efforts to end the war in Iraq, engage Iran and construct a new regional security architecture.

To avoid sounding Pollyannaish, he will have to emphasize the huge difficulties of and impediments to achieving this vision, avoid specific timetables and seek some small but early successes (starting with the cease-fire). But I believe Obama has the unique ability to lift the eyes of Arabs and Israelis from the mire of misery in which they seem forever bound to the far horizon of peace, security, normality and a better future for their children. Coming on the eve of Obama’s Inauguration, the Gaza crisis has turned that opportunity into a necessity.