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After Gaza, how Obama can pick up the pieces

The conflict gives him critical leverage to prod long-needed concessions from both Palestinians and Israelis.

By George Moffett / January 6, 2009

St. Paul, Minn.

If the crisis unfolding in the Gaza Strip is a reminder of the durability of Arab-Israeli antagonisms, it is also, in its troubling and costly way, a potential blessing to the incoming administration of Barack Obama.

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By highlighting the quixotic, mutually destructive nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Hamas's missile attacks on southern Israel and Israel's massive response provide President-elect Obama with critical leverage to prod long-needed concessions by both sides. If the moment is seized, serious steps toward a lasting peace could be taken, setting the stage for a major foreign-policy success. If it is not, Obama may forfeit one of the last opportunities to save the region from a downward spiral that could potentially destabilize the entire international system.

The governing fact that creates this dangerous but propitious moment is that neither Israel nor its Palestinian neighbors can indefinitely survive their decades-long conflict.

Whatever the provocative act of targeting southern Israel may do for Hamas politically, it will do little to redeem Gaza from crushing facts on the ground. Its territory, less than one-tenth the size of Rhode Island, bears 1.5 million people and sports one of the fastest-growing populations in the world. Two-thirds of Gazans live in poverty. Nearly half are unemployed. Gaza's long-term viability under current circumstances is virtually nonexistent.

Israel's future is also uncertain. Its air and ground operations, aimed at crippling Hamas's rocket offensive, amply demonstrate – as did its inconclusive war with Lebanese Hezbollah forces in 2006 – the relative impotence of the regional omnipotence deriving from its exclusive possession of nuclear weapons. In addition to Hamas in Gaza, Israel faces a rearmed Hezbollah equipped with an arsenal of Russian-made Katyusha rockets, estimated at more than 30,000, that is now at least double what it possessed at the onset of the 2006 war. With the potential to immobilize cities as far away as Tel Aviv, the rockets could serve as a deterrent to Israeli military action to destroy the nuclear potential of its chief regional adversary – and Hezbollah's chief patron – Iran.

Meanwhile, internal demographic trends bode ill, within the near term, to make Jews a minority in geographical Palestine and eventually within Israel itself – trends that, absent a peace settlement, may make it impossible for Israel to long remain both a democracy and a Jewish state. The danger is exacerbated by the growing restiveness of the country's large and growing Arab minority.