Gaza conflict underlines Obama’s Middle East dilemma
WASHINGTON — The new eruption of violence between Israel and Palestinian militants from Gaza is a stark reminder for newly re-elected President Barack Obama of unfinished business from his first term.
Obama’s first trip after securing the White House was to Southeast Asia, underlining his determination to “pivot” US foreign policy away from Middle East woes and towards challenges and opportunities in the Pacific.
But, even has he tours Myanmar and Malaysia, Obama has once again been forced to keep up-to-date with goings on in Gaza, where Israeli strikes have killed more than 100 Palestinians within the last six days.
Washington has made it clear that it blames the Palestinian movement Hamas for the escalation, insisting that Israel has the right to defend itself from rocket attacks fired out of Gaza at civilian Israeli targets.
But Obama is also keen that the violence not get out of control, as the tension has made the delicate task of reorienting US regional policy in the wake of the Arab Spring revolts even more complicated.
“The president has been updated regularly,” deputy White House national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters aboard Air Force One on the way to Cambodia from Myanmar.
Earlier, on a stop in Bangkok, Obama said: “Israel has every right to expect it does not have missiles fired into its territory. If that can be accomplished without a ramping up of military activity in Gaza, that is preferable.
“That is not just preferable for the people of Gaza, it is also preferable for Israelis because if Israeli troops are in Gaza, they are much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded,” he said.
The raids, launched after Gaza-based militants fired rockets into Israel, are the most widespread in the Strip since the December 2008 to January 2009 Israeli offensive that claimed the lives of 1,400 Palestinians.
When he first took office in January 2009, Obama promised to put the Mideast peace process back on track. He gave a landmark speech in Cairo, seen as reaching out a hand to the Muslim world.
Obama hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas at the White House in September 2010.
But talks fell apart three months later over the issue of Israeli settlements on territory Israel occupied during the 1967 Six Day War.
Meanwhile, with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process effectively stalled, the wider region has seen a series of revolts that have, in some cases, brought Islamist governments to power, in others triggered violent conflict.
In the process, prominent US allies have been ousted.
Most prominent perhaps was Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak — a friend of Washington and a guarantor of the Camp David Accords.
His successor, Mohamed Morsi, sprang from the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood of which Hamas is an offshoot.
Obama spoke with Morsi twice last week to ask him to step in. He reiterated the message again in a call on Monday.
“The administration recognizes the Egyptian government is in the best position to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas,” said Haim Malka of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“They’re looking for the Egyptians to play a major role in mediating the end of the current crisis.”
At the State Department, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland refused to be drawn on whether Egypt was doing enough.
“I don’t think it’s helpful from this podium for us to be getting into the details of those conversations or to be giving individual interlocutors a grade on how they are doing,” she said.
Jonathan Schanzer, vice-president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, sees the conflict in Gaza as proxy war between Iran — under fire for its nuclear program — and the West.
“The fact that the United States and many European countries appear to give to Israel a green light to operate inside Gaza has something to do with the fact that we are now in a worldwide battle against Iran,” he said.
“This is very much seen as a part of the strategic calculus from the West to say ‘Yes, get rid of the Iranian nodes inside Gaza and make it clear that Iran cannot operate there’.”
Domestically, more than four times as many Americans — 59 percent — support Israel compared with 13 percent who side with the Palestinians, according to a CNN-ORC International poll.