Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


With a leadership vacuum, fighting in Gaza explodes

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.

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.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (16)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 01/12/2009 - 11:22 am.

    I think the vacuum results from everyone finally realizing that there is nothing to do. Hamas really doesn’t want to reach a peace, it’s not in its DNA. The message in the silence is resounding.

  2. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 01/12/2009 - 11:41 am.

    Whether one is moderate, progressive or from the “unaffiliated left” as the late, great, plains poet Thomas McGrath labeled himself…faith,(Hope too, remember?)in Obama’s silence, his no-comment position, leaves concerned backers of Obama with “faith” hanging precariously by a thread, raveling from the shroud of meaningless, bloody slaughter of ordinary citizens; women and children in Palestinian Gaza.

    And noting too, at Bush’s final press conferance this bright and happy morning, he exposed the tragedy of a president totally intellectually and substantively unable to even articulate reasons for the mess he left on the table for Obama…dirty dinner plates; food rotting on the dinnerware and George essentially (paraphrasing) says…”It’s all yours Obama. I”m fixin’ to go back to Texas to cut brush. It’s not my job anymore.”

    The sad irony is that all this bloodshed could have been avoided if someone in position of power here or in the collaborative nations in the Mid-East or in Europe… even if just one had reached out and recognized whomever the victim, whomever the perpetrator, and pursued a just path?

    The killing of the innocent for the sake of corrupt policy is not acceptable.

    Acountability needs to be established after the fact. Responsibility needs to be delegated and war crimes prosecuted and that established responsibility actuated into war crimes directed on those negligent, perverted policy pushers who caused this tragic genocide on the Palestinian.

    So might as well dream a little furthur about this nightmare…Let’s assume justice will be served. So comes the question…when will these indictments begin? And who will indict whom when those who are directly or indirectly involved by their actions or by their silences, cover so wide a spectrum? Who will be left to hold court on this grand debacle?

  3. Submitted by myles spicer on 01/12/2009 - 11:42 am.

    Well, you are right about one thing — Hamas maarches to its own drummer, and it is not a pretty tune for the Palestinian populace.

    Remember, its first “war” was a fratricidal one with Fatah, which left many Palestinians dead as well — they did not care about the effects then, and clearly they not only do not care now, they likely welcome the engagement with Israel in some perverse way in which they see some wierd benefit.

    Simply stopping the rockets would (while definately not a solution) could at least stop some blooodshed and deaths, while giving Hamas a moral high ground argument. Apparently, again Hamas is not interested in either stopping bolldshed or moral high ground.

  4. Submitted by Raj Maddali on 01/12/2009 - 12:55 pm.

    And of course people will talk about Hamas all the time, while conveniently ignoring the great Israeli Land Grab.

    Sure, blame Hamas. But the land grab started long before Israel sponsored Hamas.

    I guess it behooves all Palestinians to stay silent and get back into their mordern day prison camps. How dare they ask for their lands ?

  5. Submitted by myles spicer on 01/12/2009 - 01:27 pm.

    I would truly like to know how shooting rockets arbitrarily into civilian areas will win the Palestinians their own homeland…or a peaceful existance. Doesn’t seem to work. Right?

    So…why not try something else, like stopping this stupid strategy, and forgetting about driving the Israelies into the sea?

    Intelligent people generally quit failed strategies, and go to Plan B. First, do something to end the killing of your own people. If Plan B fails, you can always go back to more killing

  6. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 01/12/2009 - 01:51 pm.

    The U.S. is the only country Israel will listen to because it (to our great shame) furnish Israel with high-tech weapons of mass destruction and never, ever withdraw our moral and diplomatic support no matter how violent Israel’s actions toward its neighbors.

    We even buy and repeat every piece of less-than-the-truth self-explanation offered by Israel. The ceasefire that ended December 19, for instance, was broken enough times by Israel for it to kill 49 Palestinians (a different article used a higher figure). Now, it claims to make every effort to avoid killing civilians but at the same time bombs schools and hospitals and private homes they must know hold the families of those they target. Toward this same claim, they offer the excuse that they only want “to light up the sky” when they shoot white phosphorous bombs into densely occupied Gaza. As frosting on all of this is their claim that they hold the higher moral ground.

    The great sadness is that our government, including the Congress (with not many exceptions) seem not to notice what is happening and simply repeat ad nauseum, “Israel has a right to defend itself” instead of asking, “Hmmm. Which nation is actually practicing anihillation instead of just talking about it?” Where is there hope in this situation? It seems only within the peace groups active in the U.S. and Israel and those who support them.

  7. Submitted by Raj Maddali on 01/12/2009 - 02:06 pm.


    The great Israeli Land Grab started long before rockets appeared on the scene.

    In the meantime why don’t Israelis ask their politicians to stop concocting theories like Judea and Samaria and Jordan is Palestine, inorder to drive Palestinans from their homes

    Once again u will blithely ignore the Israeli Settlement Policy to pretend that the only problem is Hamas rockets.

  8. Submitted by Joel Rosenberg on 01/13/2009 - 09:02 am.

    The “vacuum”, such as it is, results from the Hamas leaders hiding in their fuhrerbunker, as was eminently predictable. It was also eminently predictable that if Hamas continued to fire rockets at Israel, there would be consequences. And, again, it was eminently predictable that when the residents of PA voted Hamas in, that was what they were voting for — attacking Israel was, after all, Hamas’ campaign platform.

    Given all that, why is there all this hand wringing? Is there some reason that, of all people in the world, the Gazans (and, for that matter, the Arab residents of Judea and Samaria), should be rendered immune from the entirely predictable consequences of their galactically stupid choices?

  9. Submitted by Joel Rosenberg on 01/13/2009 - 09:09 am.

    I think Bernice Vetsch’s screed must have read better in the original German.

  10. Submitted by Erich Russell on 01/13/2009 - 10:21 am.

    Odd, Joel I was thinking the same of yours.

  11. Submitted by Raj Maddali on 01/13/2009 - 10:40 am.

    Once again Joel Rosenberg being the apologist for Israeli, will not talk about the great Israeli land grab.

    The Israelis for their wack job settlers take Palestinians lands. And oh my gosh, the Palestinians are fighting back.

    Goebbels would be proud of some of the pro Israeli propoganda

  12. Submitted by Joel Rosenberg on 01/13/2009 - 12:47 pm.

    I’ll defer to the Arab propagandists on what Goebbels would be proud of; they’re certainly devout students.

    I’m still trying to figure out the Great Gaza Land Grab, though; I’m sure Herr Maddali will explain it, eventually.

  13. Submitted by Raj Maddali on 01/13/2009 - 01:37 pm.

    Talk about the great Israeli land grab and pro Israeli apologists will deftly talk only about Gaza.

    Say Joel, ever heard that most of the settlers in Gaza were moved to the West Bank. Yes they just moved from one settlement to another.

    Not all of us buy into the unceasing propaganda

  14. Submitted by Joel Rosenberg on 01/14/2009 - 08:48 am.

    I’ll be happy to talk about Judea and Samaria, Raj; not a problem. Seems a bit off topic in a discussion of the Gaza War, though, although not in terms of the lack of viability of a “Palestinian” political entity.

    Back to the subject — why do you think it’s a problem that Judea and Samaria, unlike Gaza, have not been rendered judenrein?

  15. Submitted by Raj Maddali on 01/14/2009 - 10:33 am.

    No it is not off topic Joel, although i do agree it is an inconvenient topic. Especially when it comes to the duplicity of Israeli leaders like Sharon.

    Using terms like Judenrein is just self victimization. Pro-semitic baiting has grown so old.

  16. Submitted by Joel Rosenberg on 01/14/2009 - 12:55 pm.

    What part of the term do you a: disagree with and/or b: object to?

    Cue the crickets . . .

Leave a Reply