The intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict has thrust its way to the forefront of the mountain of challenges awaiting US president-elect Barack Obama when he takes office in three weeks.
“Obviously, this situation has become even more complicated in the last couple of days and weeks,” senior Obama adviser David Axelrod told CBS television on Sunday.
But he said Obama, who takes office on Jan. 20, was committed to trying to seal a Middle East peace deal, something that has eluded US presidents for more than five decades.
Obama has been monitoring the situation in Gaza while on holiday in Hawaii and has been briefed by both US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and US intelligence on the unfolding crisis, which has left some 345 people dead.
There have been mounting calls for an immediate ceasefire in Israel’s bombing campaign unleashed on Saturday against Hamas militants who control the Gaza Strip after increased Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel.
“The main impact is that there is a greater degree of urgency around American policy on this issue than there was before this operation started,” said Tamara Wittes from the Brookings Institution.
“When there was a ceasefire in place, when Syria and Israel were engaged in indirect negotiations and Israel and the Palestinians were at least continuing to talk, there was a better environment that would have allowed the Obama administration to settle in and to choose its time and approach,” she said.
“But that’s no longer going to be the case,” Wittes said.
Obama visited the Israeli town of Sderot, the target of regular Palestinian rocket attacks, in July and said he understood Israel’s plight.
“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,” Obama told the New York Times. “And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.”
Unveiling his Cabinet earlier this month, Obama said the Middle East would be a top priority for his designated secretary of state, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Axelrod said that Obama intended to maintain the special — if at times uneasy — relationship between Washington and the Israeli government.
But Obama has continually stressed there is only one president at a time, as he waits to inherit a pile of problems including the sliding US economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The incoming Obama administration still hasn’t made clear what direction it is going to take” on the Middle East, said Nathan Brown, an expert from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“I would guess that by the time of the inauguration you would have a ceasefire back in place of some kind, but there will be an awful lot of bad blood,” he said.
After several years of quietly putting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a back-burner, the administration of US President George W. Bush sought to launch peace talks at an international conference in Annapolis, Maryland, in November last year.
But the White House’s widely publicized pledge to sign a peace deal by the end of this year has failed.
Israel’s three-day offensive in Gaza and upcoming Israeli elections on Feb. 10, which could return to power the hawkish right-wing Likud party leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, look set to complicate things even further.
“If Netanyahu is elected, Barack Obama will be more likely to preside over a crisis in US-Israeli relations than a Middle East peace,” Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl wrote.