- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2008

ANALYSIS:

President-elect Barack Obama’s silence during the early days of Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip speaks volumes about the complexity of the Middle East crisis that he will soon inherit and may preserve some of his options for when he is able to act on his own - outside the shadows of President Bush.

U.S. Jewish groups beckoned Monday for a sign of support for Israel from the incoming president while a prominent Muslim group sought a condemnation for a military response that it viewed as excessive. Yet Mr. Obama remained silent as he vacationed in Hawaii, leaving the U.S. response thus far as the Bush administration’s unequivocal support for the Jewish state.

In the absence of Mr. Obama’s reaction, Democratic leaders in both chambers of Congress offered their own assurances that their party strongly supports Israel’s right to protect itself from continuing rocket attacks from Hamas.

“Israel is acting in clear self-defense in response to heinous rocket attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland declared. “As a sovereign nation, Israel has an unequivocal right to take action to ensure the security and safety of her citizens.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gave an equally forceful response in support of Israel.

Since his election, Mr. Obama has weighed in regularly on such issues of the day as the financial crisis and the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and most observers expect he eventually will be forced to respond to the Gaza conflict, which has killed more than 300 people. But his early silence may buy him time to examine the fallout of the military action - and the possibilities for a truce - and therefore leave him options for action when he takes office on Jan. 20, diplomatic analysts said.

“The problem is that many people would like to have him make a clear statement, but to make a clear statement before he becomes president means he has to live with it when he becomes president,” said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who noted that the outcome of the Israeli operation is still very much uncertain.

By staying silent, Mr. Obama “is making a virtue out of necessity,” said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator and author of “The Much Too Promised Land.” “He is going to inherit a crisis that doesn’t have an easy or quick exit.

“He will create a process, say terrific things and hold more meetings than you can believe, but in the end, this is not a bridge he can cross.”

Mr. Bush has not made a statement on Israel’s three-day air-assault campaign against the militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza. But a White House spokesman on Monday made it clear that Mr. Bush blames Hamas rocket attacks into southern Israel for the current spasm of violence.

“The United States understands that Israel needs to take actions to defend itself,” said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe, briefing reporters at Mr. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas.

The only public pronouncements so far by an Obama representative has come from senior adviser David Axelrod, during two appearances on Sunday talk shows.

Mr. Axelrod avoided making any endorsement or critique of Israel’s bombardment, deferring to Mr. Bush. But he did point to Mr. Obama’s comments in July, when the then-candidate for president strongly suggested that he supported Israel’s right to defend itself from rocket attacks.

“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. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing,” Mr. Obama said during a visit to Sderot, a small city in southwestern Israel that lies less than a mile from Gaza and has come under frequent rocket fire.

The absence of a clear statement on the current situation is also forcing Jewish groups to point to those comments from five months ago.

“I have no reason to believe that President-elect Obama would approach this any differently [from Mr. Bush], especially after his visit to Sderot and his own comments about the barrage of Hamas rockets and missiles,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

Others, however, were less confident.

“Hopefully, he still feels as he did when he talked passionately about how he would react if he were living in that part of Israel where they are constantly under attack,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “And hopefully that will be the policy of the administration when it comes in.”

“It would be nice if he were to reinforce the strong support articulated for Israel’s defensive actions that President Bush has,” Mr. Brooks said.

Mr. Obama’s reticence to react immediately to explosive foreign-policy events is a change from his response in August, when Russian troops invaded Georgia, a former Soviet republic. Mr. Obama’s initial reaction was judged by many to be too tepid in its condemnation of the Kremlin, and he ramped up his rhetoric the next day to match that of Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, attempted to provide some cover for Mr. Obama in a statement of his own.

“As President-elect Obama has made clear time and again, no country should be forced to tolerate attacks on its people. Israel is doing all it can to prevent future terror attacks, and the United States supports the Israeli government’s efforts to protect its citizens,” Mr. Lautenberg said.

On the other side of the debate, Muslim groups in the U.S. criticized Mr. Obama for not condemning Israeli actions, saying the president-elect campaigned on promises to change Bush policy in the region.

“It’s more of a concern to us that he hasn’t come out to condemn the Israeli massacre in Gaza,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “We are hoping for a change in our one-sided policy in the region, and we are looking to President-elect Obama to maintain his commitment to change the Bush administration policy.”

“We need to adopt an America-centered policy, not an Israel-centered policy,” said Mr. Hooper, whose group has urged its members to call and write to the Obama transition office.

Mr. Obama has made several public statements on foreign- and domestic-policy issues since winning the Nov. 4 election. He applauded Mr. Bush’s decision to bail out automakers, after expressing disappointment that Congress could not reach a deal several days earlier. He has spoken out on unemployment rates as well.

And when terrorists in Mumbai went on a killing spree in late November, Mr. Obama’s national security spokeswoman condemned the attacks that day, and two days later, Mr. Obama issued his own statement.

“The United States must stand with India and all nations and people who are committed to destroying terrorist networks, and defeating their hate-filled ideology,” Mr. Obama said on Nov. 28.

Wayne White, a former Middle East analyst at the State Department, said Mr. Obama’s silence could be a sign that he is “conflicted about what he is supposed to say in a situation where he may well believe that the Israelis are acting foolishly.”

“This is a very messy situation for Obama. If I were Obama, I would remain silent, too,” Mr. White said.

Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.

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