Peace path gets rougher for Obama

Spiraling violence between Israel and Hamas has raised new obstacles to President-elect Barack Obama’s ambitious Arab-Israeli peace initiative and his broader effort to improve relations between the U.S. government and the Muslim world, Mideast experts and American officials said Sunday.

Obama has committed himself to immediately restarting peace efforts and has made known that one of his first foreign policy moves will be a speech in the Muslim world aimed at creating a new beginning for U.S. relations with the religion’s 1.5 billion adherents.

But the violence in the Gaza Strip, which continued Sunday with Israeli air attacks and Hamas rocket fire, will probably make the conditions for negotiation even worse, experts said. And the fighting -- especially the civilian casualties -- is likely to reinforce the view of many Muslims that the U.S. has too often given unconditional support for Israeli attacks, they said.


Aaron David Miller, a veteran U.S. peace negotiator, said the fighting made “a difficult situation even tougher” and reduced the odds of success to near zero.

About Obama’s planned speech, he said the violence would speak louder to many Muslims about the U.S. “than any words Obama could utter.”

He said Muslim unhappiness with America’s position on Israeli-Palestinian issues was one of three main sources of friction, along with U.S. support for authoritarian governments in the Middle East and the U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Experts said that the bloodshed further weakened the political position of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has had a leading role in the recent Palestinian-Israeli negotiations even as he has lost control of Gaza to Hamas, and that it was likely to deepen Palestinian anger toward Israel even if the violence ended soon, which is far from certain.

They noted that Hamas’ political leader, Khaled Meshaal, in an interview with Al Jazeera television, called for a new intifada, or uprising, against Israel, including the threat of renewed suicide bombings.

Even after the fighting stops, “it’s got to be difficult to get everyone back to the negotiating table,” said Steven A. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Miller, author of “The Much Too Promised Land,” said Mideast crises sometimes offered the possibility of new opportunities by shaking up the status quo. In this case, however, “I don’t see it,” he said.

Even if Israel delivers a major blow to Hamas, it will probably not topple the militant group from control of Gaza, which it has ruled since driving out Abbas’ Fatah forces last year.

One Bush administration official, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about the situation, said “there’s no question that this is a step backward for what we’ve been trying to achieve” in the negotiating effort that began after the Annapolis, Md., peace conference in late 2007.

But Robert Malley, another former U.S. peace negotiator, said he thought the situation remained so fluid that it was risky to predict what kind of challenge Obama would confront when he took office.

He said there were a number of reasons to be pessimistic about the outcome. The Israeli offensive could, for example, lead to a prolonged occupation of Gaza, though “that is not Israel’s first choice,” said Malley, now with the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution organization in Washington.

On the other hand, he said, the crisis could strengthen the political position of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in national elections Feb. 10. Barak, of the Labor Party, is more moderate than Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, but has been trailing in the polls. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, with the now-ruling Kadima party, also is running.

Malley said he didn’t think the Bush administration would face strong pressure to intervene with the Israelis, given the initial reactions from Arab capitals. He noted that Abbas and the Egyptian government had pointed to the responsibility of Hamas in the violence and that the Arab League appeared in no hurry to take up the issue.

Obama promised in a 2007 speech that in the first 100 days of his administration he would travel to a “major Islamic forum” to make a speech “to define our struggle.”

“I will make clear that we are not at war with Islam, that we will stand with those who are willing to stand up for their future, and that we need their effort to defeat the prophets of hate and violence,” he said.

The Obama transition team declined to discuss what the Gaza fighting meant for his peace plans or hopes for improving relations with Muslims.

“President-elect Obama is closely monitoring global events, including the situation in Gaza, but there is one president at a time,” said Brooke Anderson, Obama’s chief national security spokeswoman.

An aide said Obama called Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Saturday and spoke with her for eight minutes about Gaza and developments in South Asia. The aide said Obama was not talking to foreign governments in any way that “could send confusing signals about U.S. policy.”

David Axelrod, Obama’s senior advisor, took no position on the Israeli actions in an appearance Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

He noted that Obama in July visited the Israeli town of Sderot, which has taken the brunt of the Hamas rocket attacks from nearby Gaza. Obama said then that “when bombs are raining down on your citizens, there is an urge to respond and act and try to put an end to that.”

But, Axelrod added, Obama wants to manage Mideast relations “in a way that will promote the cause of peace, and work closely with the Israelis and the Palestinians on that, toward that objective.”