How badly did Gaza poison the well?

The Israeli attack on Gaza during the last weeks of the Bush administration looks more than ever like Bush’s "last gift" to Israel and to the region — carried out during the transition, with no American attempt to intervene, ending immediately before Obama’s inauguration.  It poisoned the well for the new administration.  But how badly?  ...

The Israeli attack on Gaza during the last weeks of the Bush administration looks more than ever like Bush's "last gift" to Israel and to the region -- carried out during the transition, with no American attempt to intervene, ending immediately before Obama's inauguration.  It poisoned the well for the new administration.  But how badly?  Will there be a "fresh start" or has the Gaza carnage significantly changed the prospects for effective movement by the new administration? 

I would argue that the Gaza crisis did impose significant costs on the new administration, and will make its task much more difficult in the early going. Few in the region seem prepared to grant Obama a fresh start, with the horrific conditions in Gaza still drawing great attention and outrage. But at the same time, if the Obama administration seizes the opportunity to really change the Bush approach -- in ways consistent with its own campaign rhetoric on regional engagement -- then it may yet be possible to spin some gold from the carnage.  

Here are five examples of the poisonous effects of Israel's attack on Gaza... and how Obama could work to overcome them:

The Israeli attack on Gaza during the last weeks of the Bush administration looks more than ever like Bush’s "last gift" to Israel and to the region — carried out during the transition, with no American attempt to intervene, ending immediately before Obama’s inauguration.  It poisoned the well for the new administration.  But how badly?  Will there be a "fresh start" or has the Gaza carnage significantly changed the prospects for effective movement by the new administration? 

I would argue that the Gaza crisis did impose significant costs on the new administration, and will make its task much more difficult in the early going. Few in the region seem prepared to grant Obama a fresh start, with the horrific conditions in Gaza still drawing great attention and outrage. But at the same time, if the Obama administration seizes the opportunity to really change the Bush approach — in ways consistent with its own campaign rhetoric on regional engagement — then it may yet be possible to spin some gold from the carnage.  

Here are five examples of the poisonous effects of Israel’s attack on Gaza… and how Obama could work to overcome them:

  1. Wrecked Obama’s honeymoon period. Arabs across the political spectrum were outraged by Obama’s "one president at a time" mantra. As justifiable as this was — and I think it was — it looked in the region like Obama tacitly approved of Bush’s green light for the operation. Obama now faces a lot more skepticism and anger than he otherwise might have. That said, I never expected the honeymoon period to last all that long anyway. Arabs were already closely scrutinizing every word and deed by the President-elect — and a remarkable number seemed almost eager to find a reason to believe that Obama would fail to really change U.S. policy. But the fury is proportionate to the hopes — and there is a real reservoir of hope and anticipation there which should not be ignored. If — and only if — Obama demonstrates serious changes in U.S. policy in the region, he will find many takers. 
  2. Made peace talks less likely. Israel’s attack has generated tremendous outrage across the board, has worsened the divides between Gaza and the West Bank and between Hamas and Fatah, and probably will hasten the election of Benjamin Netanyahu next month.  The environment for peace talks will be as toxic as possible.  On the other hand, prospects for peace talks were already very shaky, and even before the Gaza war I heard more support for the "Syria First" option than for immediate moves on the Palestinian front.  The crisis forces the Israeli-Palestinian track on to the agenda, and perhaps strengthens the case for a  more even-handed approach (the appointment of George Mitchell is a very encouraging sign). What’s more, if Gaza undermines the prospects for a return to Clinton-era "peace processing" this might actually be a very healthy thing… after all, Clinton’s peace processing failed, for reasons which Aaron Miller, Dan Kurtzer, Rob Malley, and Martin Indyk have all laid out in considerable honesty and graphic detail of late. Here I highly recommend the report written by my friend Nathan Brown on Gaza for Carnegie (full disclosure: Nathan’s office is two doors down from mine, and I read an earlier draft). If the Gaza crisis exposes the myths and vain hopes of the peace processors, it could push towards new approaches with a better chance of actually tackling the issues on the ground.  That’s going to have to involve dealing with Hamas at some point, as most reasonable people increasingly recognize. 
  3. Strengthened radical voices, but not necessarily al-Qaeda.  There’s no question that Gaza has weakened the hand of moderates and strengthened more extremist voices across the political spectrum.   It would be a mistake to simply reduce this political contest to "support for al-Qaeda", however. It should be obvious, but too often isn’t, that a whole lot of Arabs and Muslims who have no patience whatsoever for al-Qaeda’s ideology or tactics are furious about Gaza. Reducing the full spectrum of political opinion to al-Qaeda’s extreme, marginal salafi-jihadism is a way of marginalizing and ignoring legitimate, widely-held Arab political beliefs. Abandoning that Bush-era rhetorical gambit could open up real possibilities for new political initiatives and public diplomacy… if the Obama team is willing to make that change.
  4. Strengthened the hand of the dictators. The American reliance on Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the Gaza crisis shines a glaring light once again on the tension between democracy promotion and strategic politics as usual. With public opinion inflamed and the "peace process" in peril, Arab autocrats will bid to demonstrate their usefulness to the United States in exchange for less talk of their tyrannical ways. The bad old habits persist for a reason. I’m not optimistic that this one will be overcome, but I’ll continue to advocate for pushing hard on public freedoms in the region.
  5. Sharpened regional divisions. Nobody is fooled by last week’s love-fest in Kuwait, where the Arab divisions and dueling summitry which had paralyzed the official Arab order during the Gaza crisis were supposedly overcome. The Gaza crisis has driven an ever sharper wedge between the camps of "moderation" and "rejection", as they’ve come to be called in official Arab discourse.  Here’s where Obama could make a real difference.  The Bush administration thrived on and encouraged these divisions, working hard to promote clashes between the "Sunni moderates" and the "Iran-backed radicals."  Obama has the chance to end American support for this dangerously divisive approach and instead push for Arab reconciliation as part of the broader concept of regional engagement with Syria and Iran. There are real possibilities here — if, and only if, the administration is able to maintain its coherent regional focus and ambition.

None of this would vindicate the Israeli decision to attack Gaza. But these might at least suggest how a forward-looking policy based on different premises might work with the new environment. 

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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