As president-elect, Barack Obama carefully avoided engaging directly on the Gaza conflict, adopting the traditional posture of incoming presidents not to say or do anything that might complicate sensitive diplomatic efforts by an outgoing administration.
But even before the first 24 hours of his new administration had elapsed, Obama was rapidly trying to re-energize efforts to build an enduring cease-fire between Israel and the Hamas militant movement that controls Gaza. The conflict may well become the starting point for the more active U.S. peacemaking Obama has urged.
Obama's early phone calls to four Middle Eastern leaders also may reveal the urgency he and his advisers feel in trying to shore up an acutely fragile cease-fire declared unilaterally by Israel, and then Hamas, shortly before Obama moved into the Oval Office. Hamas said it would ensure its part of the cease-fire for only a week, opening at least the possibility of large-scale fighting as early as Obama's first weekend in office.
The shakiness of the ceasefire was underscored by Palestinian militants firing mortar shells at border crossings between Israel and the Palestinian strip along the Mediterranean coast. Israeli soldiers returned fire.
A 22-day Israeli air and land offensive against Hamas, which had been raining down missiles on southern Israeli towns, showed Israel's lopsided ability to inflict punishment. It left some 1,300 Palestinians dead, at least half of whom were civilians, while 13 Israelis died.
Just how much Israel accomplished from its thrust into Gaza remains unclear. Its 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon left that militant movement wounded militarily but not politically. In Gaza, says the International Crisis Group in a new report, "Israel hopes to further degrade Hamas's military capacity and reduce the rocket risk; Hamas banks on boosting its domestic and regional power." It is possible that both aims have been advanced—to some degree—amid the death and destruction.
The White House said that in Obama's calls to the leaders of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority, he vowed to press U.S. efforts to firm up the cease-fire "by establishing an effective antismuggling regime to prevent Hamas from rearming" and by assisting reconstruction efforts with the Palestinian Authority, which is run by the more moderate Palestinian nationalist group Fatah. Hamas has been smuggling missiles into Gaza through underground tunnels beneath its frontier with Egypt—a central obstacle to making any cease-fire last.
The daunting task of cementing this cease-fire—let alone forging a broader peace—will fall to Obama's secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and his new top Middle East envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell. One problem they will face is the Fatah-Hamas split, which complicates security issues in Gaza.
Who would monitor the Egypt-Gaza border and how it would be done also remain unclear. Egypt says it needs more troops along the border to police it, but Israel is reluctant to change its peace accord with Cairo to permit that. Hamas is backed by Syria and Iran and has received Iranian missiles. But moderate Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan want to see Hamas's influence diminished, and the Gaza violence has deepened rivalries within the Mideast.
Israel's political situation also adds complexity. It will hold elections on February 9 that might bring into power a harder-line Likud government. The political season in Israel makes compromising over Gaza more difficult—and Obama's diplomatic challenge, too.