The message that Barack Obama can send to Israelis and Palestinians

Saturday, January 17, 2009

BARACK OBAMA is not yet president, but he is already having a gravitational effect on the conflict in Gaza. Egypt, the Bush administration and, above all, Israel appear eager to bring the fighting to a conclusion before Tuesday. Yesterday Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni flew to Washington to sign a showy -- if somewhat vague -- agreement with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the interdiction of future arms smuggling to Gaza. Israel may sign a similar deal with Egypt over the weekend.

The principal holdup to a cease-fire remains Hamas, whose Iranian-sponsored leadership has no interest in sparing Mr. Obama from a Middle East crisis. Despite three weeks of pounding by the Israeli army, Hamas continues to fire dozens of rockets a day at Israeli cities, and yesterday its Damascus-based leader publicly rejected Israel's cease-fire terms. That means that Israel's leadership, which has been divided over how far to press its military offensive, may soon have to choose between unilaterally declaring an end to the fighting and another escalation that would draw the Obama administration into a Gaza quagmire on its first day.

Whether or not the Gaza fight has ended, Mr. Obama has promised a quick start by his administration on Middle East diplomacy. In a meeting with The Post's editorial board on Thursday, Mr. Obama said that he didn't believe his administration would "have that luxury" of standing back from the deteriorating situation. Yet the president-elect appeared to have a healthy appreciation of the limits of what U.S. diplomacy might be able to accomplish. "That doesn't mean we close a deal or we have some big, grand . . . Camp David-type event early in my administration," he said. "The notion is not that the United States can dictate the terms of an agreement."

Mr. Obama pointed out that "most people have a pretty good sense about what the outlines of a compromise would be." The problem is political weakness on both sides. So, he said, his aim would be "to provide a space where trust can be built"; he cited the suggestion of former British prime minister Tony Blair "to build some concrete deliverables that people can see," such as greater security for Israelis and economic benefits for Palestinians.

This is sensible thinking; it is also much harder than it sounds, as Mr. Blair has discovered in his role as envoy to the region. The incremental approach Mr. Obama is describing won't work unless Israelis and Palestinians are convinced that the president is truly committed to achieving a two-state settlement. One way Mr. Obama can convince them is by sending a clear message before Israel's upcoming election that he will expect the new government to negotiate seriously with the Palestinian Authority about issues such as the borders of a new state, the disposition of Jerusalem and a solution for Palestinian refugees. He should insist that the next prime minister follow Israel's own laws and commitments in curbing Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank. And he should make clear that Israel will continue to have U.S. support when it defends itself against the terrorism of Hamas and Hezbollah. Those groups, and their sponsors in Iran and Syria, can be weakened by military means, but a successful peace process will deal them a more crippling blow.

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