Obama has high stakes in Gaza

George Moffett

If the crisis unfolding in the Gaza Strip is a reminder of the durability of Arab-Israeli antagonisms, it is also, in its troubling and costly way, a potential blessing to the incoming administration of Barack Obama. By highlighting the quixotic, mutually destructive nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Hamas’s missile attacks on southern Israel and Israel’s massive response provide President-elect Obama with critical leverage to prod long-needed concessions by both sides.

If the moment is seized, serious steps toward a lasting peace could be taken, setting the stage for a major foreign-policy success. If it is not, Obama may forfeit one of the last opportunities to save the region from a downward spiral that could potentially destabilise the entire international system.

The governing fact that creates this dangerous but propitious moment is that neither Israel nor its Palestinian neighbours can indefinitely survive their decades-long conflict. Whatever the provocative act of targeting southern Israel may do for Hamas politically, it will do little to redeem Gaza from crushing facts on the ground. Its territory, less than one-tenth the size of Rhode Island, bears 1.5 million people and sports one of the fastest-growing populations in

the world.

Two-thirds of Gazans live in poverty. Nearly half are unemployed. Gaza’s long-term viability under current circumstances is virtually nonexistent. Israel’s future is also uncertain. Its air and ground operations, aimed at crippling Hamas’s rocket offensive, amply demonstrate the relative impotence of the regional omnipotence deriving from its exclusive possession of nuclear weapons.

In addition to Hamas in Gaza, Israel faces a rearmed Hezbollah equipped with an arsenal of Russian-made Katyusha rockets, estimated at more than 30,000. With the potential to immobilise cities as far away as Tel Aviv, the rockets could serve as a deterrent to Israeli military action to destroy the nuclear potential of its chief regional adversary Iran. Prospects are fast diminishing to effect the only viable compromise that can retrieve the region from

escalating conflict: the very two-state solution envisioned by the United Nations the year before Israel was created, in 1948.

Among other things, such an outcome would force all Palestinian factions, not just Fatah, to accept a permanent Jewish state in Palestine. It would require Israel to relinquish Zionist aspirations that now extend well into the other Palestinian territory, the West Bank. In the face of certain opposition, Obama need only ask one question: What’s the alternative?

Pressing the point, especially in the early stages of an administration that will need to husband as much goodwill as possible to deal with economic issues at home, will require presidential risk-taking on an unprecedented scale.

But two risk-taking American presidents — Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, brokers, respectively, of the Camp David and Madrid peace processes — have demonstrated the possibilities. Events in the intervening years make the odds longer for Obama, even as the stakes are now higher.

But if he chooses to capitalise on the outpouring of global goodwill that greeted his election, the results could be transformative, for Israelis, for Palestinians, and for the world.