Obama's Limited Middle East Options

Palestinian supporters of Hamas protest in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Friday.
Palestinian supporters of Hamas protest in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Friday. (By Nasser Shiyoukhi -- Associated Press)
By David Ignatius
Sunday, January 4, 2009

Perhaps Barack Obama imagined that he could take office on Jan. 20 with a clean slate in the Middle East. He spoke of opening a dialogue with America's adversaries, such as Syria and Iran, in the pursuit of peace and security in the region.

That image of "turning a page" brought hope to many in the Middle East, but it created concern among hard-liners on all sides. Iran and its proxies worried that American diplomacy might undercut their radical appeal; some Israelis worried that the peace policies of an untested new administration might undermine Israeli security.

But as the continuing fighting in Gaza shows, there is no such thing as a clean slate in the Middle East.

The latest chain of events was dismally predictable: Hamas, pushed by Iran and its own extremist ideology, refused to extend a six-month cease-fire that expired Dec. 19, and stepped up rocket attacks. Israeli leaders, pushed by election politics and an angry public, responded with a furious assault on Gaza -- escalating yesterday to a ground invasion. The Israelis may have wanted to take their shot at Hamas while a supportive President Bush was still in office.

Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's top foreign-policy strategist, had told me two weeks ago in Istanbul that the region's political choices were lined up like dominoes. This past week, they were all falling the wrong way.

The attitudes that shaped this latest round of conflict were succinctly expressed in statements from the two sides: Meir Sheetrit, Israel's interior minister, told Israel Radio on Tuesday, "The Israeli army must not stop the operation before breaking the will of the Palestinians, of Hamas, to continue to fire at Israel." That's understandable, for an Israeli public that thought it would be getting peace when Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005. But if this conflict has taught one lesson, it's that efforts to "break the will" of the other side almost always fail.

The unyielding response of Hamas was conveyed in a statement from its military wing, quoted in the New York Times: "It would be easier to dry the sea of Gaza than to defeat the resistance and uproot Hamas." Until the Israeli assault, that would have been a fatuous boast; Hamas was increasingly unpopular in its home base. But the attacks have boosted its popularity, in Gaza and around the Arab world.

Pro-Hamas demonstrators were on the streets last week, from Egypt to Jordan to Lebanon to Turkey. Indeed, the biggest worry among diplomats wasn't so much stopping the fighting as preventing its spread.

Caught in the fallout are the Arab regimes that despise Hamas and would love to see Israel finish the job but whose publics are indignant about the Israeli attacks. Each regime is caught in a different way: Egypt, which brokered the six-month cease-fire, is facing intense popular pressure to aid Hamas; Jordan, afraid that as Palestinian peace talks collapse it will have to manage a chaotic West Bank, has been expanding its contacts with Hamas and its patron, Syria.

In a classic sign of uneasiness in the Hashemite kingdom, King Abdullah II is said to have replaced his intelligence chief. Out is Muhammad Dahabi, a respected former chief of staff of the service; in is Muhammad Ratha'n Raqqad, an experienced case officer from a powerful Jordanian family who made his name targeting radical Islamic groups.

Obama can't wipe this slate clean. He inherits the legacy of hatred and suspicion. But that doesn't change the essence of the challenge before him -- to help the parties in the region turn a page and get on to a new one.

Obama should press ahead with the list of options that existed before the Gaza fighting -- a Turkish-brokered agreement between Hamas and Fatah to extend the term of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas so that peace negotiations can continue under his authority in 2009; American support for peace negotiations between Syria and Israel, which were on the verge of moving to direct talks just a day before the Gaza battle began; and exploratory discussions with Tehran to see if it is possible to envision a new security framework for the region.

Above all, Obama has to find a way to maintain a clear and independent American vision of this zone of conflict. The self-defeating logic of war is destroying the Middle East; there has got to be a better path, and Obama's task is to search for it.

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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