A hairline crack was visible Wednesday, Jan. 8, in the incoming US president Barack Obama's silent front on the Gaza crisis. He actually told reporters that he is concerned about the violence in Gaza, but also wary of sending conflicting messages about American foreign policy. But, he added, after Jan. 20 he would have “plenty to say.”
Obama is fully updated on the ins and outs of the crisis by the president he will succeed, George W. Bush, and the intelligence community. Moreover, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources, he is nowhere as passive as he seems. His designated secretary of state Hillary Clinton has been directed to open a direct line to Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, while the new national security chairman, Gen. John Jones is in close touch with Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
In her last days as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice is umpiring the diplomatic front on behalf of the Bush administration. But those sources disclose that the two presidents have agreed to let Mubarak handle Middle East diplomacy and to give the Israeli military enough slack to finish Hamas off as a military force and terminate its rule of the Gaza Strip.
At UN headquarters in New York Wednesday night, Washington blocked for the second time the Arab-drafted Security Council resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of Israeli troops without mentioning Hamas.
Rice objected that the text left out Israel's call for monitors to destroy Hamas' tunnels for smuggling arms through Egypt and its rocket attacks on Israel.
She applauded President Mubarak's initiative instead.
Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal did not hide his displeasure at being thwarted by Washington.
A flourishing exit for Bush, a strong hand for Obama
Privately, the US diplomat told the Arab ministers firmly to forget about giving Hamas the slightest leeway. The United States, which holds veto power in the Security Council, would not let a resolution stand which demanded an Israeli withdrawal or the reopening of the Gaza crossings.
Rice then got together with French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, who is the current Security Council president, and UK foreign secretary David Miliband, both of whom lined up behind her.
Kouchner had just left president Nicolas Sarkozy after accompanying him on a failed ceasefire mission to Middle East capitals.
Explaining her government's policy to reporters, she said: “There must be a solution this time that does not allow Hamas to use Gaza as a launching pad against Israel cities. It has to be a solution that does not allow the rearmament of Hamas, and it must be a solution that finds a way to open crossings so that Palestinians in Gaza can have a normal life.”
Thursday night, a concerted effort was made by the US, British and French envoys and the Arab bloc to formulate a compromise text.
The rapport between the outgoing and incoming US presidents on the Gaza question benefits them both. Bush bows out after his second term with a chance of burnishing his mixed Middle East record. An exceptional achievement in this region, whose conflicts lurk in wait to trip up US presidents, is not to be sneezed at, especially one which promises continuity of his policies on the Palestinians, Iran and Syria.
As for Obama, he has a good chance of stepping into the White House armed with a strong hand for tackling Iran on the nuclear question: After Hamas' prospective downfall, the Islamic Republic can hardly demand to be treated as the No. 1 regional power.
Of course, this bright outlook for both presidents is predicated on the Israel's military's success in Gaza. It also depends on Egypt being able to execute its plan to dwarf Hamas, reducing the Islamist extremists to their initial size and restoring Palestinian Authority government to the Gaza Strip.
If these tricky and complicated efforts are fruitful, Obama's starting point in the Middle East will be a lot more favorable than anticipated.