Thanks to Hamas’ stupid, provocative, and self-defeating rocket assault on, well, nothing, in Israel, the Middle East that Barack Obama will inherit from George W. Bush just got a lot more complicated. And, sadly, Obama seems content to fiddle while Gaza burns.

Yesterday Obama got an official US intelligence briefing on the crisis in Gaza, which may or may not have numbed his brain with data he didn’t need. Obama didn’t need an intelligence briefing to tell him anything he really needs to know: that, once again, the twin poles of Israeli and Palestinian extremism have flared up in a way that will only undermine, perhaps fatally, the chances of a negotiated accord during Obama’s first term in office.

The only useful intelligence Obama might have gained from the briefing is that the Mossad knew, before Israel’s massive attack on Gaza, that Hamas was only trying to make a show of force. That is, Hamas’ not-too-bright leaders thought that they could get away with a few hundred rocket attacks into Israel and then renegotiate a better ceasefire deal. Like the less-than-brilliant strategists in Georgia, who thought that they could attack Russia with impunity and who instead got their heads handed to them last August, Hamas’ own armchair fanatics thought they could get away with it. Oops. The Wall Street Journal reports today:

In recent weeks, Israeli intelligence officials have said they believed Hamas doesn’t want a full-scale confrontation, but rather wants to make a show of force before seeking a renewed cease-fire on more favorable terms.

If that’s true, and there’s little reason to think it isn’t, it was certainly within Israel’s power to exercise restraint — or perhaps to engage in a little tit-for-tat counterattacks — while waiting for things to settle down. But, no. Hamas, for its part, should have known that it was firing its rockets directly into Israel’s pre-election political mess, in which hardline extremists like Bibi Netanyahu are gaining the upper hand. And the power of those extremists, playing on Israeli public opinion and its fears, pushed the pathetic Olmert-Livni government over the brink. (It’s particularly disgusting that Olmert, who in his various exit interviews and speeches has pretty much acknowledged that Israel needs a deal involving the removal of Jewish settlements and the partition of Jerusalem, would go along with the overkill in Gaza.)

But the truly sad thing is see how Obama has opted out. He left the commenting to David Axelrod, his political strategist, who said, mouse-like: “I think he (Obama) wants to get a handle on the situation so that when he becomes president on January 20 he has the advantage of all the facts and information leading up to that point.” To that gobbledygook he added that now all-too-familiar nostrum that America has “one president at a time.”

It’s long past time for the United States to have opened a dialogue with Hamas. As stupid as they are, their leadership is divided and they are not all religious fanatics (though many are) and they are not all living in the fantasy that Hamas can defeat Israel. The same Journal story today notes:

There are indications that the Hamas leadership is divided on how forcefully to respond. When Hamas’s traditionally hard-line Damascus-based leader Mr. Meshal urged renewed attacks against Israel earlier this month, local Hamas leaders in Gaza quickly distanced themselves from his statements.

Those more sensible Gaza leaders of Hamas might be willing to reconcile with Fatah and the Palestinian authority, and it’s the least that Obama could do to say so. It might be nice, too, if Obama would gently (or not so gently) point out that Israel’s ham-handed overreaction needs to be reined in. (The Bush administration, which cheer-led Israel’s 2006 attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon, isn’t going to call for restraint.)

Meanwhile, just as Israel’s attack on Lebanon strengthened that country’s band of religious fanatics — Hezbollah — the Gaza assault is almost guaranteed to end up bolstering Palestine’s own religious extremists, including Hamas’s more wild-eyed and terrorist-inclined gangs. For some Israeli extremists, that may be exactly what they want, because it pushes a two-state solution that much further away. It would nice, too, if Obama would point that out.

During 2008, Obama never allowed any daylight between himself and the Israeli lobby. Those inclined to believe that Obama had a secret plan to break with AIPAC and its allies and to push for a solution in Palestine in a manner that wouild involve twisting Israeli arms discounted Obama’s pro-Israel rhetoric as campaign posturing. We’ll see. But it now appears abundantly clear that we’ll have to wait until January 20, if not long afterwards, to find out.