President-elect Barack Obama has so far said nothing about the war raging between Israel and Hamas in Gaza because he has nothing to gain and much to lose by making his position clear. His silence, which he defends by deferring to President Bush – “We have only one president at a time” – is not exactly a shining example of courage and leadership. Instead, it reveals once again a man defined more by caution than boldness. And one who knows just how much is at stake for the Middle East and for his own administration.
When Obama finally speaks out about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, millions of people will feel disappointed, angry and even betrayed. The blow will come either to those who hoped the new American president would weaken the close relationship between Israel and the United States or to those who want the links to remain as strong as ever.
Obama may not be talking, but he has spoken before and left no room for misunderstanding. Last summer, while visiting an Israeli town that for years has endured almost daily attacks by Hamas, he reassured Israelis anxious about his views. As a father, he said, he would do whatever he could to protect his children and he expected Israel to do the same to protect its citizens. Still, some dismissed the words as the utterances of a candidate pandering for votes.
Obama turned himself into a blank slate during the campaign, making voters believe the change he promised was the one they wanted. By the time he started speaking in specifics, supporters could disregard the parts they didn’t like, telling themselves that was just politics.
The denial seems to be wearing off. On both sides there is disappointment with Obama’s silence. Some supporters of Israel say that they wish he would make a strong statement declaring Israel must defend itself. The anger at Obama, however, burns hotter among Israel’s enemies, who interpret the silence as tacit approval of Israel’s actions.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshal declared that Obama’s “start is not good.” Criticism from the leader of a group branded a terrorist organization by the United States and Europe is a badge of honor. But others on the Arab street and in the anti-Israel European media echoed the sentiment. They want Obama to condemn Israel.
But Obama must be hoping for a decisive Israeli victory against Hamas, as are most European and Arab governments (including the Palestinian Authority) even if they don’t have the courage to say it publicly. Hamas is one of the biggest obstacles to peace in the Middle East. Not only because it opposes negotiations with Israel, but also because its actions remind Israelis that every time they withdraw from a piece of land, its enemies turn it into a launching pad for attacks. This strengthens the Israeli hardliners.
In the wider Arab world, Iran-backed Hamas represents the threatening regional aspirations of Iran and of the banned Islamist groups that seek power in just about every Arab country.
Israel launched its offensive after Hamas declared an end to the cease-fire and sharply escalated its attacks against Israeli civilians. The conventional wisdom is that Israel’s forceful response will complicate Obama’s prospects to bring peace to the Middle East. In fact, if – if – Israel hands Hamas an indisputable defeat, it will have done much to help Obama.
If Obama comes to power with a weakened Hamas, he will inherit a situation in which Iran feels less powerful, making it easier to restrain. Obama’s peace envoys will also find both Palestinians and Israelis more inclined to compromise.
An Israeli victory could give a big boost to the peace process and to Obama’s chances of shining as a peacemaker. Still, this scenario is far from assured. In the meantime, a tragedy is unfolding. Events can easily spin out of control. Obama the prudent is quietly watching and waiting. His ability to remain silent, however, will soon come to an end.
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