Tue, Jan 13, 2009 - Page 7 News List

ANALYSIS: Obama faces tough choice in Middle East, analysts say


The Middle East foreign policy black hole has relentlessly sucked in US diplomacy for more than a half century and now awaits US president-elect Barack Obama even as he refuses to show his hand before taking office.

While the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip puts the perennial regional puzzle in stark relief for the incoming administration, it is just another in the long history of crises and bloody conflicts between the Jewish state and the Palestinians.

And there are signs that despite the fighting in Gaza, the Israel-Palestinian conflict may not — and should not — be the heart of US policy in the Middle East after Obama takes office next Tuesday.

Instead, analysts say, Obama may need to focus more on stemming the rise of Islamic extremism.

Conventional wisdom in the US has long held that an Israeli-Palestinian peace would trigger a seismic shift in the region. Leaders across the Middle East would lose their excuse for refusing to accept the Jewish state as a legitimate neighbor.

Thuggish Arab regimes could no longer use the conflict to rationalize their brutality and undemocratic behavior. Free elections would produce moderate, democratic rule.

That view, however, was seriously undercut with the rise to power of the militant Islamic group Hamas in Gaza, the impoverished Palestinian enclave separated by Israeli lands from main Palestinian territory in the West Bank. Washington labels Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Hamas’ rise to authority in Gaza put the tiny slice of misery — a humanitarian sore abutted by Israel on two sides and bounded to the west by Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea — in the orbit of Iran, a non-Arab country with an extremist Islamic leadership that vows the destruction of Israel.

Hamas’ rise also buoyed another US adversary, Syria, which has provided Hamas with funding and refuge for its leaders. Syria is an anomaly in the Arab world in that it is allied with the Iranians despite historic Arab-Persian animosity. Both Iran and Syria also offer essential support to Hezbollah, the Islamic movement that has accumulated power over large parts of Lebanon, on Israel’s north.

Israel fought Hezbollah to a stalemate in Lebanon in August 2006.

Deeply afraid of growing Iranian influence in the region and fearing Tehran may soon be a nuclear power, Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — nominal but difficult US allies — have been slow to add their voice and activities to the conflict in which the Israelis are pummeling Gaza with the aim of crippling Hamas.

The seeming ambivalence of such Arab states to act in face of the Israeli attacks, despite massive street protests in support of Hamas, has blunted a source of pressure on Israel to stop its deadly assault and signals a further evidence of wobbly Arab solidarity.

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