This is the fourth of a five-part series on Barack Obama’s Middle East. Part V, on Iran, will appear Monday.
Chances are fair to middling that a ceasefire in Gaza, ending Israel’s three-week blitzkrieg there, will take hold before Barack Obama is sworn in as president on Tuesday. But, either way, the war has pushed the Palestine issue to the very top of Obama’s agenda for first days and weeks in office. If there is any silver lining from the carnage in Gaza, it’s that Obama’s team can’t avoid the issue, even if they’d wanted to before the crisis erupted.
But in talking to Washington insiders, virtually everything about how Obama will approach the Arab-Israeli dispute seems up for grabs — or, at least, Obama’s people aren’t talking. Obama, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton, and other officials have said that they won’t let the problem sit on the back burner for years, as past administrations have done. And they certainly won’t abstain from engagement altogether while giving one-sided support to Israel, as the Bush administration did, from the get-go, by isolating the PLO, refusing to meet with Yasser Arafat, supporting Israel’s bloody invasion of the West Bank, its 2006 invasion of Lebanon, and, of course, winking at the current attack on Gaza.
It isn’t clear, yet, how Obama will deal with the crisis, nor is it clear who he will appoint to manage policy. Will Obama be personally engaged in dealing with the parties, in a hands-on manner, with full presidential involvement? Will he assign the secretary of state to handle the task? Will he appoint a “special envoy” for the job? Will he simply let the assistant secretary of state and the ambassadors handle it? And who will these people be? The Israeli lobby, including the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is promoting Dennis Ross, who works at WINEP, as a kind of super special envoy, dealing with Iran and the Middle East, but that isn’t set in stone. Daniel Kurtzer, who served as Obama’s top adviser on the Middle East during the campaign, is an orthodox Jew who was US ambassador to both Egypt and Israel, is said to be a straight-shooter who is fiercely committed to a two-state solution, and his impeccable Jewish credentials make him scary to Israeli hardliners, sources say, since they will find it a lot harder to impeach him. In any case, so far, Obama’s not tipping his hand.