Is the incoming president, world-renowned for his eloquence, about to become better known for his silence?
Barack Obama may not have assumed office yet but a war is already being conducted in his name.
Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, now says that Israel is engaged in a “war to the bitter end” against Hamas in Gaza. And in justifying this war to Israel’s state assembly, the Knesset, Barak said: “Obama said that if rockets were being fired at his home while his two daughters were sleeping, he would do everything he could to prevent it.”
Barak’s war has become Barack’s war — unless he breaks his silence.
Obama chooses his words carefully. He did so when speaking to the press in Sderot in southern Israel, during the presidential election campaign this summer. While he was clearly and shamelessly pandering to American Jewish voters, his statement expressed sympathy for the Israelis being targeted by Qassam rocket fire, but it also underlined that an effective response would focus on preventing further attacks — not merely the retaliatory and bellicose response with which Israelis are so familiar, that is, a military operation whose purpose is “to teach the Palestinians a lesson.”
If Obama continues to remain silent he will implicitly be sending a message to Israelis, Palestinians, and everyone else across the Arab world. His silence will be seen and will have the operational effect of providing an endorsement for Israel’s war on Gaza. His silence will set the tone for his whole approach to the Middle East. If his plan to give a major speech in a Muslim capital has not already been put on hold, it might as well now be scrapped.
But there is an alternative. This is what Obama can and should say:
I support the Israeli government in its goal of providing security for its citizens. However, I believe that the current operation in Gaza is unlikely to serve that goal and in the long run may further undermine Israel’s security.
What can Israel do now? Pull back its troops, offer to renew the truce and lift the siege.
The truce actually worked, as this graph from the Israeli Foreign Ministry clearly shows.
Rocket fire did not resume until Israel broke the truce on November 5.
What we now know, is that Israel did not view the truce as a means to bring calm to southern Israel but instead used it as an aid for gathering intelligence in preparation for war.
Had the Olmert government regarded the cessation of rocket fire as a foundation upon which it could build, it would have taken clear steps to lift the siege. (But to have pursued such a course would not however have provided the Palestinian body count upon which Israel’s next prime minister hopes to ride into office.)
Instead, what we now witness is a brutal spectacle in which, using the Orwellian language of war, Israel claims that it’s target is Hamas, not the residents of Gaza.
Obama is still in a position to exert influence, but the longer he waits, the less power he will have; the more likely he will be seen as the perpetuator of George Bush’s failed approach to the Middle East.