Obama's First Test

How will the next President deal with the conflict in the Middle East?

Obama's first test

Even during the holiday break, one cannot completely disconnect from news events. In recent years, the holiday season has been marked by tragic events: the tsunami in Southeast Asia four years ago and Benazir Bhutto’s assassination last year both captured the world’s attention. This year, it is the Israeli air strikes in Gaza that are drawing attention. The U.S. reaction has been supportive of Israel and Canada has asked for a ceasefire while supporting Israel’s right to defend itself. Demonstrations are being held across the globe and the Arab world is up in arms with calls for a third intifada led by Hamas and Hezbollah. No doubt, Iran is following events and will once again be convinced there is a need to pursue its nuclear enrichment program.

Elections are coming in Israel this February and, so far, opposition leader and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu has been setting the pace. The governing party (Kadema) in Israel stood little chance of staying in power unless it took a strong stance against Hamas’ shelling of southern Israel. During the campaign, the two-state solution endorsed by Bush and Olmert (and defended by foreign minister Livni) will face off against the more hawkish vision of the Likud and Netanyahu. By then, Barack Obama will have inherited the problems he campaigned so hard for the opportunity to resolve.

At the top of Obama’s agenda will be the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afganistan, and a host of domestic issues like health care and independence from foreign oil. However, just like Bush, Obama will inherit an explosive situation in the Mideast. The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be at the heart of his administration’s foreign policy issues. Will Obama continue down the path tread by Bush and push for a two-state solution? Or will he bring a new approach more in line with his “change” agenda? Does he intend to be a broker like Nixon, Carter, Bush 41 and Clinton? Or be more of an advocate, like George W. was?

On the campaign trail, Obama had to wrestle against perceptions he may not be friendly enough to Israel. The marginal yet significant controversy surrounding his name and possible Muslim heritage contributed to the doubts about his views on Israel. Obama addressed his critics by visiting Israel and endorsing its right to defend itself. (He also courted controversy by supporting Israeli rule over an undivided Jerusalem.) Since winning office, he has made reassuring moves to Israel boosters, like keeping Defense Secretary Robert Gates in place, and appointing Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state and Raihm Emmnuel as his chief of staff. Few can doubt that Obama will bring a drastic change in policy in the short term with these nominations.

The conflict in Gaza will be the first test of the Obama presidency. The short term challenge will be to secure a ceasefire, although this will most likely happen in the next few days under Bush. The long term challenge is to forge an enduring peace that guarantees Israel ‘s right to exist and the Palestinians’ right to a state so it too can grow and prosper in peace. This will require diplomacy at the highest level, given the Iranian nuclear threat, the continuing threat of terrorism, and the need to find a peaceful solution to the conflict between Israel and its neighbours.

Hamas has no scruples when it comes to provocation and is known to set up its headquarters in civilian-populated areas. But Israel’s deadly response is hardly measured or justified by most humanitarian accounts. The international community must intervene with more than a press communiqué. Leaders such as Obama and Sarkozy are expected to do more than continuing decade-old policies. The world is more volatile now than it was during the Cold War: now, we must deal with rogue nations and the possibility of nuclear terrorism, a global recession, two inconclusive wars that have overextended the American military, and a serious gap in the credibility of the moral leadership of the U.S. (largely a product of the Bush years).

Obama must change the discourse in the Middle East and become more a broker of peace than an advocate of one side. Israel must never doubt America’s and the free world’s resolve to defend its right to exist. But it is time for greater audacity in the search for peace. The old formulas no longer will do. A new generation of Americans wants change and so do a new generation of Israelis and Palestinians. They prefer peace to war. This is Obama’s first real test—and failure cannot be an option this time around.

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