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Gaza Fighting Poses Challenges For Obama

The White House, which has been a solid supporter of Israel from the outset, lays the blame for the violence in Gaza squarely on the Islamic group Hamas. Many analysts, however, are closely watching for any indication of how President-elect Barack Obama will deal with the issue when he takes office in less than a month.

The Bush administration says it is vigorously involved in trying to restore the broken cease-fire between Hamas and Israel. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe made it clear the first step must come from Hamas.

"In order for the violence to stop, Hamas must stop firing rockets into Israel and agree to respect a sustainable and durable cease-fire," he said.

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When asked whether Israel's response in Gaza was justified, Johndroe repeated that the Bush administration believes Israel has the right to defend itself. That kind of support from the outgoing administration may have influenced the timing of the Israeli offensive in Gaza, says George Bisharat, a professor of law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

Obama's Position

"Certainly, the Bush administration is one that the Israeli government feels comfortable with, realizes is not likely to face much constraint with," Bisharat says. "And so, I think, one of the reasons for doing this before the incoming Obama administration is because of that sense of freedom and comfort with the Bush administration."

Bisharat says Israel would probably not want to put Obama in a very difficult policy position early in his administration.

David Newton, a retired American ambassador who is now with the Middle East Institute, says the incoming administration must be cautious of what it says before it takes office.

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"If it sounds strongly pro-Israeli, that will further inflame Arab opinion against us, and you'll hear remarks about how it's just the same old policy," Newton says.

David Axelrod, Obama's senior adviser, said the president-elect would honor the important bond between the U.S. and Israel, and would work hard to try to bring peace to the region. There is speculation as to whom Obama will choose to help bring that about.

Presidential Involvement

Analysts say two men are being considered for the position as Middle East special envoy. One is Dennis Ross, who has a long resume in Middle East peacemaking during the administrations of Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. The other is Daniel Kurtzer, who also has much experience in the Middle East, but is a fierce critic of past U.S. diplomatic efforts in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Professor Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland says personnel and policies are important, but what really matters is if a president and his administration are engaged in the issue.

"If it's an important issue to them, they're going to be involved personally, the secretary of state is going to be involved personally, and they're going to put the weight of the White House behind both in persuading Congress and the American people, international community, Arabs and Israelis," he says. "If they don't do that, it doesn't matter who they appoint as special envoy."

Opportunity For Fresh Start

Bisharat, with Hastings College, says that at this point, it's hard to read where Obama falls on the Palestinian-Israel issue.

"On the one hand, for example, he shows considerably greater sensitivity than President Bush has to the image of the United States in the Muslim and Arab worlds," he says. "On the other hand, his specific statements about Israel and Hamas are much closer to the Bush policy than his general pronouncements have been."

Newton says the Gaza crisis could present Obama with an opportunity to start fresh. But, he says, Obama will also face political realities here in the U.S.

"There's very strong domestic support for Israel, and sympathy for the Palestinians is considerably lower," he says.

For now, the crisis in Gaza will be handled by the current White House. But the violence could well spiral into Obama's administration when he takes office next month.

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