Obama and the Perils of Gaza

It's strange to think that a central hope of Barack Obama's presidency could be dashed before he puts his hand on Lincoln's bible. But as hundreds of thousands of protesters fill the streets from Beirut to Baghdad, from Paris to Athens to Sidney, it's increasingly clear that the perils of the President-elect's lame words on Gaza run deep. If Obama does not say unequivocally that Israel's current folly, with its 85:1 death ratio, is inhumane, unacceptable, and in no one's interest - least of all Israel's own - he will risk squandering his great promise to remake America's image in the world.

Throughout the campaign, one of Obama's biggest appeals was in vanquishing George W. Bush's horrific international legacy: his presidential defense of torture, smug disregard for the rule of law, and lies in pursuit of war. Around the world leaders and ordinary people alike dared to hope that Obama, with roots in Africa, Indonesia and even Hawaii, could bring a worldly wisdom and empathy to peoples sickened by an America-first brutality.

Now Israel's assault on Gaza threatens to smack down all such expectations. For nearly two weeks the Obama team justified its silence on Gaza with its convenient "one president at a time" mantra - one it's been quick to abandon on the economy, or the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Finally, after Israeli mortar shells killed 42 people at a U.N.-run school, Obama allowed that "the loss of civilian life in Gaza and Israel is a source of deep concern." In a conflict whose latest chapter has killed more than 1000 Palestinians, compared with 13 Israelis, this faux even-handedness was as transparent as it was one-sided. Of course we should mourn all the innocent dead, but ignoring the outsized brutality of Israel's offensive, which is as bad for Israel as it is for America, presents huge hazards for the president elect.

Against Obama's near silence rise ghastly mountains of rubble - the latest being the U.N. compound in Gaza City - there for all of the Arab and Muslim worlds to see. Atop one such pile, a schoolgirl's severed forearm; beneath another, an entire family. As these images build fury across the region and beyond, Obama deepens the pain with his tacit message that his American administration, in the end, may not be any different from the others.

Indeed, there may be little reason to think that an Obama administration will bring a more even-handed policy to the Middle East. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is an Israeli-American whose father was a member of Irgun, an extremist organization that carried out attacks on civilians, including the bombing of Jerusalem's King David hotel, in the years before Israel was established. A leading candidate to be Obama's Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, has deep ties to pro-Israel lobbying groups, and a record of failure as part of President Clinton's Middle East team. And Obama himself has gone to great lengths to avoid criticizing Israel; indeed, the first speech he made after clinching the Democratic nomination was a fawning address to AIPAC, the hardline pro-Israel lobbying group.

Yet those determined to hang onto their hopes for a more balanced Middle Eastern policy could argue that Obama's team will be well positioned to speak hard truths to an old friend. His aides could point to the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, when, in killing hundreds and uprooting 800,000 Lebanese, Israel not only failed to destroy Hezbollah, but made it stronger. They could invoke 1988, when Israel, trying to weaken PLO leader Yassir Arafat, encouraged the growth of a fledgling Hamas. Or March 1968, when 15,000 Israeli soldiers attacked the Jordanian village of Karama, ultimately strengthening the real target of its attack: Yassir Arafat. Or November 1966, when Israel attacked the West Bank village of Samu, demolishing dozens of house and killing 21 Jordanian soldiers. That attack fueled a deepening anger on the Arab street against Israel and its Western benefactors, weakening pro-U.S. Arab regimes - to safe himself, a badly weakened King Hussein forged an alliance with Egypt's hardline president Nasser - and setting the stage for a war and a 41-year occupation. The echoes of that war, and of the Arab rage that threatened pro-Western leaders, can be heard across the region today.

If Barack Obama had the strength and courage to have such a hard talk with an old friend, he could, by invoking history, help change its course. In the process he would send a message to the rest of the world - that America is ready to be even handed, and to indeed remake its image across the Arab and Muslim Worlds.

Obama promised in his too-brief comments on Gaza that "after January 20th, I'll have plenty to say." Here's hoping he does, and that by the time he opens his mouth, it won't be too late.

Other recent articles by Sandy Tolan on Gaza can be found here and here.