The new American president, Barack Obama, has urged Israel to open its borders with Gaza, but no one expects this to happen unless a prisoner exchange goes forward. Reports that Corporal Gilad Shalit, now in his third year in Hamas's clutches, was wounded in an air strike during the early days of Operation Cast Lead have not been confirmed. His whereabouts and his health are of vital concern to Israel. Still, Obama's words are a sign that Washington is weighing the political and security costs of the Israeli-Arab conflict and maybe rethinking unconditional support of Israel. Obama is pushing the Two-State solution, it appears, but said absolutely nothing about dismantling settlements. Nevertheless, it's a big step on Day Two in the Oval Office.
Dubya, his predecessor, first publicly called for a Palestinian state in October 2001, but waited years before taking concrete action, which came to precious little. (Remember Annapolis? The Road Map? Birth Pangs ??) Well, let's watch as Barack and Hillary now replace those dancing partners George and Condi for a Waltz with Barak, the defence minister. Obama has a three-stage plan to resolve the stand-off in Palestine and Israel. It sounds so simple: top priority is for an end to the fighting, then he wants to unite the sundry Palestinian factions and finally to restart the peace process.
According to the Financial Times, this was
a speech that signalled the new US administration’s shift from Bush-era policy on the Middle East and the world as a whole. In a high-profile address on his second day in office, just hours after he signed an executive order to close the centre at Guantánamo Bay, Mr Obama proclaimed that the US would “actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians” in the wake of this month’s Gaza war.
“The outline for a durable ceasefire is clear: Hamas must end its rocket fire: Israel will complete the withdrawal of its forces from Gaza: the US and our partners will support a credible anti-smuggling and interdiction regime, so that Hamas cannot re-arm,” the US president said.
“As part of a lasting ceasefire, Gaza’s border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce, with an appropriate monitoring regime, with the international and Palestinian Authority participating.”
Mr Obama and Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, also announced the appointment of George Mitchell, as the US special envoy for the Arab-Israeli conflict and Richard Holbrooke, former US ambassador to the United Nations, as representative for Afghanistan-Pakistan.
The moves signalled another shift from the foreign policy of the Bush administration, which had resisted appointing a high-profile envoy for Middle East peace. [Relying on the dubious diplomatic charm offensive of Tony Blair, instead.]
Although Condoleezza Rice, who finished her tenure as secretary of state this week, brokered a 2005 deal to allow open border crossings to Gaza, access was often shut down, with Israel citing security concerns and Hamas launching rocket attacks. The issue is set to test the authority of the new administration as it begins to grapple with the Middle East conflict.
Before Mr Obama gave his speech, an Israeli official said there would be tough conditions for any lifting of the blockade, which he linked with the release of Gilad Shalit, a soldier held captive by Hamas since 2006.
“If the opening of the passages strengthens Hamas we will not do it,” the official said.
“We will make sure that all the [humanitarian] needs of the population will be met. But we will not be able to deal with Hamas on the other side. We will not do things that give legitimacy to Hamas.”
Under its ceasefire, Hamas has given Israel until Sunday to open the borders. Much of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure has been destroyed during the three-week Israeli offensive and, without building materials and other supplies, there is little hope of rebuilding the water, sewage and power networks as well as private homes and key government buildings. But many foreign donors share Israel’s concerns that the reconstruction efforts should not be led by Hamas, or enhance the group’s legitimacy.
“Let me be clear: America is committed to Israel’s security and we will always support Israel’s right to defend itself against legitimate threats,” Mr Obama said.
But in comments referring to the Gaza conflict he added: “I was deeply concerned by the loss of Palestinian and Israeli life in recent days and by the substantial suffering and humanitarian needs in Gaza. Our hearts go out to Palestinian civilians who are in need of immediate food, clean water, and basic medical care, and who’ve faced suffocating poverty for far too long.”
He called on Arab governments to “act on” the promise of a Saudi-led 2002 Arab peace initiative by supporting the Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas “taking steps towards normalising relations with Israel, and by standing up to extremism that threatens us all.”
The US has pledged an extra foreign aid package- around $1.75m to help rebuild Gaza- but it will go through the Palestinian Authority rather than give legitimacy to Hamas. As a bulwark against the vicious Middle East 'hood, billions of military aid will continue to be alloted to Israel and is expected to stay at the same lavish level.