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With a leadership vacuum, fighting in Gaza explodes

The conflict in Gaza comes during a dangerous leadership vacuum in both the Middle East and in the United States: No one seems to have the political or moral authority to convince Israel to stop pounding Palestinians and to persuade Hamas to stop bo

Smoke rises during Israeli's offensive in Gaza last week. The fighting comes when there’s lack of leadership in the Middle East and in the United States.
REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Smoke rises during Israeli’s offensive in Gaza last week. The fighting comes when there’s lack of leadership in the Middle East and in the United States.

President-elect Barack Obama’s near silence over the crisis in Gaza has been a theme running through protests staged in Minnesota and around the nation by peace activists and Palestinian sympathizers.

The demonstrators may well have expanded their list of leaders who seem feckless, silent or absent in the face of the bloody conflict.

No one seems to have the political or moral authority to convince Israel to stop pounding Palestinians in Gaza and to persuade Hamas to stop bombarding Israel with rockets.

This conflict comes during a dangerous leadership vacuum in both the Middle East and in the United States, said J. Andrew Overman, an archeologist at Macalester College in St. Paul who works regularly in the Middle East.

“There never has been a greater vacuum of leadership in the region in the lifetime of any of your readers,” Overman told me.

Israel and Hamas, the militant Palestinian group which controls the Gaza Strip, chose this time for that very reason, said Michael Barnett, who holds the Harold Stassen Chair of International Relations at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

“While Hamas’s attacks clearly made Israel’s decision a lot easier, there is little doubt that  [Israel] wants to use this opportunity to act now rather than wait until a new Obama administration comes in,” Barnett said.  

But massive killing forces, once unleashed, are not easily reigned back in. Who could help?

“There isn’t anybody on the map right now who can get these disparate players into a room and work this thing out,” Overman said. “The current players are too weak.”

If not for that void, the crisis may have been averted before any blood was shed. While some reports have cast Israel’s attack on Gaza as a surprise, there were clear signals it was coming as an earlier ceasefire expired.

“Everybody knew the deadline for the ceasefire was coming up on Dec. 19th,” Overman said. “That was a missed opportunity. There should have been a lot of diplomatic energy and activity leading up to the 19th ….So even this last round of suffering could have been headed off if there had been more foresight and energy devoted to extending the ceasefire. All of this points to the lack of essential intermediaries.”

On Sunday, Israel’s caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the nation that Israel “was getting close to achieving the goals it set for itself” in its strike on Gaza, the New York Times reported. And diplomats from several countries were meeting in Egypt today to try pushing through a cease-fire agreement.

But with the death toll approaching 900, Israel prepared today to throw more troops into battle and Hamas continued firing missiles into Israel.

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Even if some ceasefire is achieved this week, the leadership void remains a worry for the future of the tense region.

Consider the status of key players:

The United States  
After several U.S. presidents helped lead Israelis and Palestinians to negotiating tables if not to lasting peace, President Bush set the matter aside for the most part and focused instead on regime change in Iraq.

Now, Bush seems to have checked out early, apparently doing little beyond expressing support for Israel and issuing tepid calls for an end to the bloodshed.

Israel’s invasion of Gaza comes at “this weird moment the president’s powers are diminished and his successor is not yet engaged,” Steven Cook, Middle East analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Los Angeles Times.

Although Bush administration officials insist that they have been pressing hard on the diplomatic front, questions remain about whether they have the leverage to produce a settlement — or even want one at a moment when there is no clear victor, the Times said.

For Obama’s part, the one thing he has made clear is that he does not plan to play president in this foreign policy crisis until he officially holds the office.

“The question, now as always, is whether and how this military initiative is tied to a political process,” said Barnett at the Humphrey Institute.

With the government of Ehud Olmert, now a caretaker Prime Minister, in shambles, several prominent politicians are jostling for the top spot.

The one thing that is sure at this moment is that the attack on Gaza is broadly supported by Israelis who fear the ever increasing reach of Hamas’ rockets.

And so, as Israel’s general election approaches on Feb. 10, the competing voices of would-be leaders present a confusing jumble of possible end games.

Hamas enjoyed popularity among Palestinians after it won parliamentary elections in 2006, according to a global attitudes survey reported by the Pew Research Center.

Sixty-two percent of Palestinians polled by Pew in 2007 had a positive view of the group the United States calls a terrorist organization.

But Hamas’s favorables were falling in 2008. And Fatah, the rival organization headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, was gaining some favor, even in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, Pew said.

Still, Fatah and Abbas remain weakened by the years of bruising in-fighting among Palestinians.

Now, with Palestinian elections coming up later this year, Hamas “is going for broke,” said Overman at Macalester.

“Hamas knew that Israel was going to retaliate to their constant rocket launches, and they were gambling that they could gain respect they had lost from their population by standing up to Israel,” he said. “This is a cold, calculated approach to their situation.”

The Arab Neighborhood
Egypt helped broker the previous cease fire between Israel and Hamas, and it has tried to be an intermediary during other flash points in the tense relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. But the truth is that Egypt would love to see Hamas fail. So would Saudi Arabia and several other Arab countries that are grappling with their own Islamic militants.

Arab delays and difficulties over Gaza stem from a broader regional split. It has pitted a “resistance” faction — including Iran, Syria and their militia allies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine — against such Western-backed, pro-peace-with-Israel governments as those of Egypt, Jordan, the rump Palestinian Authority on the West Bank and Saudi Arabia, The Economist reported.

The Western-backed governments hope for Hamas’s defeat. The resisters hope, if not for an unlikely Hamas victory, then at least for Gaza’s rulers to survive, as proof that Israel cannot simply smash all its enemies into submission, the Economist said.

Iran seems to be Hamas’s best friend in the region, reportedly supplying Hamas with technology and materials for the rocket attacks on Israel. But that relationship makes the Western-backed countries all the more wary of Hamas.

Pew’s 2008 survey “found significant opposition to Hamas in several predominantly Muslim countries …as well as deep reservations about one of Hamas’ chief sponsors, Iran.

“Still, given the striking antipathy toward Israel throughout much of the Arab and Muslim worlds, if Hamas survives reasonably intact and comes to be viewed as the Palestinians’ primary defender against the Jewish state, its popularity may rise,” Pew concluded.

That, no doubt, is Hamas’s gamble.

Europeans have been most visibly active of the world leaders in their attempts to broker an end to a crisis that threatens to spark violence in their countries as well.

But efforts by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and other European leaders have so far been fruitless.

Last week Sarkozy and Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg tried to secure a 48-hour cease-fire on both sides so humanitarian aid could get into Gaza. The hope was that once the guns were silent, a longer-term peace process could flow from that, Time Magazine reported. Israel and Hamas were having none of it.

“Europe has no real influence to dramatically change things in a region where the U.S. remains the only power anyone listens to,” Philippe Moreau Defarges, a European-affairs specialist at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris told Time.

“Still, Europe had to try something in the face of two dire factors: America’s irresponsible refusal to get involved now and the terrible failure of Bush Administration policy in the region that the current crisis arose from,” he said.

What will Obama do?
The upshot is that Obama steps into a void where danger looms from several directions but opportunity shines as well.  

While the world pins great hopes on Obama, he has yet to show how he will and can respond to such a complex crisis, said Barnett at the Humphrey Institute.

“The best case scenario is that there is an Obama administration that is ready to try and capitalize on Hamas’s blow,” Barnett said.

“But given the overwhelming domestic agenda, I don’t see how or why Obama would tackle this,” he said. “End result: Palestinians suffer, Israel buys a respite, and everything returns to ‘normal.'”

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs, science and other topics. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.