The Israel-Hamas war launched Saturday, Dec. 27, was the first Middle East conflict in 60 years in which the United States played no role.
It was also the first conflict in which none of the players and would-be mediators, European and others, referred to Washington before embarking on diplomatic ventures.
Bush administration's exit year has been marked by Washington's non-presence in more than one key Middle East event.
In May, the United States opted out of the Lebanese Unity Accord negotiated and signed in the Qatari capital of Doha. This deal juggled around the balance of power in Lebanon. It hoisted the extremist Shiite Hizballah back into the coalition government with new veto powers and extended de facto recognition to restored Syrian influence in Beirut, which the Bush administration had fought long and hard to purge.
This transaction was cobbled together by a new bloc formed by Qatar, Iran, France, Syria and Turkey. It marginalized not only the United States but also Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Since then, American officials have been striving to limit some of the damage wrought in Doha – with mixed results. A large US military mission has taken up position in Beirut to back up the pro-Western factions in government. However, Hizballah and Syria are steadily deepening their destabilizing grip on Lebanon, with al Qaeda lately adding to the ferment.
Not a murmur from Washington
When Israeli warplanes thundered over Gaza last Saturday, there was scarcely a murmur from Washington, but the Gang of Five which engineered the Doha accord swung into action. France, on the eve of its handover of the European Presidency, tried to jump into big American shoes by proposing an immediate 48-hour “humanitarian ceasefire” in Gaza, hoping to run ahead with the larger project of an Israeli-Palestinian peace mission and apply it to the fate of the Gaza Strip.
Not only was the US thrust aside by these initiatives; so too were Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
But the shoes proved to be too big for America's challengers. The truce venture was premature because neither the Palestinian Hamas nor Israel was ready to play.
Hamas avenged Israel's stunning aerial bombardment, which had claimed 400 Palestinian lives by Thursday, Jan. 1, with devastating volleys across the border against southern Israel at the rate of 90 missiles and rockets a day.
As Hamas extended its range, a million citizens – one-tenth of Israel's population – fell within the sights of Hamas' Qassam missiles and the far more sophisticated Grad Katyusha rockets. They were condemned to lockdown until further notice. Schools, shops and workplaces were shut down to reduce casualties, after five important towns, including Ashkelon and Ashdod ports and Beersheba, capital of the Negev, were hit along with a host of smaller communities.
No truce with Israel's election due in 40 days
Israeli leaders have no hope of putting the lid on the sizzling South by accepting a truce at this juncture. The targeted population is clamoring for the IDF tank and infantry to finish the job by going into Gaza and ending their long nightmare once and for all.
Two of the leading decision-makers, defense minister Ehud Barak of Labor and foreign minister Tzipi Livni of Kadima, have not lost sight of the general election 40 days away, while caretaker prime minister Ehud Olmert wants to end his term in office on a high note.
Washington's lassitude in the Gaza crisis may owe much to the Bush presidency having only 20 days left to run, Barack Obama spending his last moments of pre-presidential freedom on a Hawaii beach with this family, and the US army beginning to pack its bags for leaving Iraq.
On the other hand, Obama and his transition teams made key cabinet appointments before he went off. So where is designated secretary of state Hillary Clinton? And why is the designated national security council chairman Gen. James Jones not meshing with the outgoing NSC and its head Stephen Hadley to put out the fire blazing in the Middle East?
A joke is going around Washington that the Obama gang is thankful Israel went ahead before he took over.
However, once Israeli tanks and boots hit the ground in the Gaza Strip, there is no guarantee that the conflict will wind up any time soon. Israeli officials are all talking about a long haul and, on the last day of 2008, deputy defense minister Mattan Vilnai spoke in terms of weeks.
The Gaza conflict will confront Obama as president
Three optional eventualities are visible on the near horizon:
The fighting will still be raging when Obama is sworn in on Jan. 20, 2009.
Israeli forces will break Hamas' back and its fighting leadership will flee to the Sinai Peninsula, smashing its way past the blocking presence of Egyptian forces in Rafah.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy and his Qatari partner-in-mediation Sheikh Hamas bin Khalifa Al-Thani, will succeed in parlaying a truce between the combatants without involving the United States.
Whichever of the three developments comes to pass, it will present the incoming US president with a quandary.
He will be called upon to address a burning Middle East crisis without any real levers for determining its course or its outcome. This is hardly the controlled scenario his transition team charted for handling the problematical Iran, Syria, the Palestinians and the Muslim world at large.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources, some of Obama's confidants have reacted to Israel's Gaza offensive by pointing out that, for three years, Israel never really hit back for the Palestinian missile attacks which followed its disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Jerusalem went on the warpath now, they say, after looking at three options:
One, striking Iran's nuclear sites; two, destroying Hizballah's missile and weapons arsenals; three, going for Hamas.
Jerusalem plumped for the third, say these Washington insiders, not just because the daily missile and rocket buffeting was intolerable, but as a way of maneuvering Obama into reconsidering his presumed strategy for engaging Iran, Syria – and even possibly the Palestinian extremist Hamas.
Israel's Gaza operation aims at cutting Iran, Syria down to size
Israel has not formally spelled out the practical targets of its Gaza operation, beyond “reshaping the security situation in southern Israel to allow the population to live normal lives free of missile terror.” Some ministers have sworn to smash Hamas and terminate its rule of Gaza. But a prime, unspoken strategic goal is undoubtedly to take the Middle East extremists down a peg or two or more – terminally, if possible – before the new US president starts dealing with them.
The Israeli offensive has a broader, long term aspect, say the Washington insiders: It is a counterattack against Iran, Syria and their bellicose pretensions to regional domination at the head of a flock of non-state extremist organizations by exploiting the explosive Palestinian issue to destabilize and delegitimize the mainstream Arab governments – especially those committed to a negotiated peace with Israel.
By parading its awesome military might, Israel aims to show the pretenders up as useless when it comes to saving one of their own. Tehran may have trained Hamas commanders, supplied its rockets for shooting at Israel, egged it on to challenge “the Zionist entity” – and even sent an al Qods general to design its Gaza bunkers – but when it comes to rescuing Hamas from doom at Israel's hands, the Islamic Republic is a paper tiger.
Without a proven long-reaching military arm, Tehran would forfeit its claim to be the preeminent regional power and lose its case for being treated in this capacity by the Obama administration as the precondition for their dialogue.
Similarly, Syria and its president Bashar Assad, who poses as the great protector of the Palestinian Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other radical non-state terrorist groups and hosts their commands in Damascus, will lose face and share Iran's fate as a second-rater.
Hamas' plight forces cracks in Arab-Muslim alignments
Hizballah's Hassan Nasrallah has been brazening out his failure to open a second front against Israel from Lebanon to ease the pressure on his ally, Hamas. Night after night he postures before the Shiite masses in his Dahya stronghold in Beirut to offer sage strategic advice in the spirit of “Hang in there, time is on your side” – anything rather than act out his role as the heroic guru of the Arab “resistance” movement against Israel.
If Israel's military excursion against Hamas ends in victory, President Obama will find a Middle East quite different from the one he reckoned on and a Tehran and Damascus cut down to size.
It is too soon to tell how the Israeli campaign, which still faces several stages, will turn out. For now, Obama, Clinton and Jones are watching from the sidelines. There is no sign that they are about to revise their thinking on Middle East tactics, or break away from the conventional truisms which dominated the Bush administration's Middle East policies.
With America out of the fray for now, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources trace the deep rift developing in the Arab-Muslim camp – the first fruit of Israel's challenge to the radical camp.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia, ranged on one side, would dearly love to shrink Hamas back to his former size as a side product of the Muslim Brotherhood movement and an inconsequential faction of the pro-Western Palestinian Authority. Since sweeping to victory in the Jan. 2006 Palestinian elections and wresting the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority in June 2007, Hamas has run out of control.
Ranged on the opposite side are Syria, Qatar and Iran, who are determined to maintain Hamas' dominance in the Palestinian movement.
Surprisingly, at this point in the Gaza crisis, a leading European power and Turkey have broken away from their support for the moderate US camp in the wake of Washington's lead and lined up behind the radical Islamic-terrorist bloc. These new realignments will be analyzed in separate articles.
Last minute bulletin: In the face of opposition from secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush informed prime minister Ehud Olmert Thursday night, Jan. 1, that the Gaza operation could run without a time limit and he would veto any UN Security Council resolution that condemns Israel and demands a halt to its military operations. US intelligence's latest estimate is that Hamas is crumbling.