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Gaza Crisis

DW staff (jc)
January 7, 2009

Incoming US President Barack Obama has said he will tackle the conflict in the Gaza Strip but only after taking office on Jan. 20. But many in the world think he should say now what he intends to do in the Middle East.

Obama in front of map of the Middle East
Obama would probably have prefered to begin with other Middle East problems

With pressure mounting on Obama to break his silence on the Gaza conflict, the President-Elect did issue a statement on Wednesday, January 7, if only to say concrete policies would be forthcoming.

"I am doing everything that we have to do to make sure that the day that I take office we are prepared to engage immediately in trying to deal with the situation there," Obama said at a news conference. "Not only the short-term situation but building a process whereby we can achieve a more lasting peace in the region."

When pressed by reporters, Obama repeated his justification that he was unable to do more before being officially sworn in.

"We cannot be sending a message to the world that there are two different administrations conducting foreign policy," he said. "Until I take office, it would be imprudent of me to start sending out signals that somehow we are running foreign policy when I am not legally authorized to do so."

But Obama's rationale is unlikely to quell speculations, both in the US and throughout the world, over why the man about to become the world's most powerful leader is refusing to comment on the first pressing foreign-policy issue of his administration.

"The future President has been tinkering for weeks over his domestically attractive image as savior by personally editing every detail of his billion-dollar program to revive the faltering US economy," wrote Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. "But on the international stage he's hiding."

Theories and more theories

Obama holds a gift given to him by a woman in Sderot, Israel, whose home was struck directly by rocket fire
As a candidate, Obama reassured Israelis of his supportImage: AP

No one seems to know precisely what Obama thinks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general or Israel's current Gaza offensive in particular.

A number of US and foreign newspapers have cited a statement Obama made during a visit last summer to the Israeli town of Sderot as evidence of his pro-Israel leanings.

"If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that," then candidate Obama said. "I would expect Israelis to do the same thing."

But others suspect that the promise of change under which Obama campaign includes a move away from what most of the Arab world sees as US favoritism toward Israel.

And European news periodicals like Britain's Guardian and Germany's Der Spiegel have picked up on speculations originating in the US media that Israel may have launched the Gaza offensive in the final days of the Bush Presidency, because it was unsure about Obama's unwavering support.

European media are also trying to glean Obama's true stance by analyzing his cabinet picks -- almost as though they were tea leaves.

Designated Chief-of-Staff Rahm Emanuel, who served as a civilian volunteers in the Israeli Army, and Secretary of State in spe Hillary Clinton have been read as expressing Obama's pro-Israel tendencies.

On the other hand, designated UN Ambassador Susan Rice and National Security Advisor James Jones are considered more sympathetic to the Palestinians, and Obama himself said during his campaign that he would be willing to speak directly to traditional US enemies.

To do or not to do

A Palestinian family rushes from the scene of an Israeli missile strike
If the Gaza destruction doesn't stop, the new President's hand may be forcedImage: AP

Indeed, there's not even much consensus on how much of a priority the Middle East will be in Obama's early administration, even if commentators agree that the President Elect would have preferred not to deal with the issue immediately.

"Gaza is burning, and Israel's bombs are causing daily casualties, but the world can only expect change at twelve noon sharp on January 20," wrote the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. "And Israelis and Palestinians should proceed to the back of the line."

But other sources say that the new US President, like it or not, will have to devote significant attention to the current Palestinian crisis.

"If Barack Obama had hoped that he could concentrate his Middle East policy at the start of his administration on the nuclear squabble with Tehran and the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, the Israeli offensive in the Gaza strip, cancelled those plans," wrote the Financial Times Germany.

And observers say simply trying to ride out the conflict won't work.

"It may well be that the fighting is over by [Obama's inauguration]," wrote Der Spiegel. "But the crisis will have consequences, and they will affect even the US President."