Great and immediate challenges

The damage that the last eight years of the outgoing administration of President George W. Bush inflicted on the Middle East was so deep that any change in Washington will be widely welcomed in the region.

Realistically speaking, however, expectations must be tempered by the reality of US Middle East policy constants, particularly American commitments to Israel. Those constants dictate that only small changes can be expected from Washington. These can nevertheless make a difference.

One such change in policy is the need for immediate and extensive engagement with and attention to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Another is the need for a fresh and comprehensive approach that appreciates the strong interrelationship among the different regional conflicts.

Finally, there is a need for an inclusive approach; one that will encourage dialogue and negotiations among all parties to conflicts and that will put an end to the present approach, which is based on exclusion and boycott.

It is probably not a coincidence that after just over three weeks, the Israeli war on Gaza appears to be coming to a gradual end two days before Barack Obama’s inauguration. However, there are some other reasons for the timing.

International public outrage at Israel’s actions in Gaza was mounting along with the tragic images, statistics and testimonies from international organizations, mainly the United Nations relief organizations, working in Gaza. Those statistics were indefensible. Some 1,300 Palestinians were killed, two-thirds of them civilians and one-third children. Over 5,500 people were wounded and some 4,000 private homes were destroyed.

In parallel to this, and perhaps as a result, Egyptian mediation efforts started to gain momentum in the last week of the war. A Hamas delegation, made up of two representatives each from Gaza and Damascus, as well as an Israeli delegation shuttled back and forth to Cairo to ensure that Egyptian efforts gained traction.

Other countries with influence also contributed in paving the way. A statement by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the BBC on January 16 essentially declared Syrian support for the Egyptian efforts by calling for the firing of rockets, the smuggling of weapons, the blockade and the Israeli offensive to end. This is more or less the substance of the Egyptian initiative.

Assad’s prominent statement can also be interpreted as an invitation to the next American administration to think of the Syrian-Israeli political track as more ripe for cultivation in the political process that is expected to follow the war on Gaza.

The Obama administration will be faced with a new reality created by this war, and in more ways than one. There was life in the Bush administration right up until the last moment. In a sudden and dramatic American move that can be interpreted as an attempt by the current administration to create facts on the ground that Obama will tread on, the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed an agreement with her Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni. The agreement filled gaps in Egyptian mediation resulting from the Israeli demand for guarantees to end the smuggling of weapons and the Egyptian refusal to allow an international presence on its border with Gaza.

Hamas, meanwhile, has been weakened militarily and therefore its room for maneuver in terms of direct confrontation with Israel has been narrowed. This may usher in a year of calm around Gaza. But the Islamist movement is going to come out of this war strengthened politically vis-a-vis its rival Palestinian factions, including Fateh, and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Hamas may find, therefore, that in the next phase of the conflict it can more fruitfully operate on the political level and in the West Bank arena.

The complete failure of the American-initiated Annapolis peace process and the significant increase in Israeli measures to consolidate the occupation in the West Bank on the one hand, and the Israeli war on Gaza, which increased public sympathy with Hamas, on the other, have further shifted the balance of power against Fateh in the West Bank and left the Palestinian Authority politically very vulnerable.

Complicating the situation further, 2009 is a year of elections and expiring mandates. Israelis vote in February, while Hamas has already withdrawn its recognition of President Mahmoud Abbas as the legitimate head of the PA. Palestinian Legislative Council elections are due early next year.

These factors all leave the Obama administration with great and immediate challenges to both its intentions and abilities.