Gaza crisis: a crossroads for Obama

It could bring renewal – if Obama is bold enough to stand up to Israel.

The catastrophe unfolding in Gaza has the dark force of a recurring Middle Eastern nightmare: Scattered guerrilla-like attacks from the weak lead to massive retaliation by the strong. Excessive lethal force provokes enraged recriminations. Fresh bloodshed fuels the hard-liners on both sides.

We have seen this cycle many times before: throughout Lebanon (2006), across the occupied territories during the first intifada (1987-93), in east and west Beirut (1982), and even during the founding of modern Israel and the subsequent dispossession of the Palestinians in 1948.

When the smoke finally drifts from Gaza, and the human rights investigations begin – into the death of schoolchildren in midday rocket attacks or the demolition of a women's dormitory – sober voices will ask why Israel has still not learned a fundamental lesson: By trying to crush your enemy, you only make him stronger.

Two years ago, despite killing hundreds of Lebanese fighters and civilians, and driving some 800,000 from their homes, Israel could not defeat the radical Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which emerged stronger than ever. For Israel, again, the lesson was lost – ironically, on a nation whose tragic motto is "never again."

The difference now is that from the ashes of this war, new lands can be seeded – if President-elect Obama is bold enough to do what his predecessors would not. Like the financial meltdown in the US, Israel's grave and massive blunder in Gaza provides Mr. Obama with an opportunity for sweeping changes unimaginable on Election Day.

Obama could begin by making clear that the days of Israel's impunity are over. Israel's outsized response to Qassam rocket attacks has not only killed more than 350 Palestinians in the past three days; it has further radicalized Arab populations from the Gulf to Egypt and may lead to a third intifada.

This does not mean the US should condone the rocket attacks and mortar fire, but simply recognize that their limited power to kill – about two dozen deaths in the past six years – must be seen against the massive retaliatory force of Israel, a nuclear power with one of the strongest armies in the world.

"Special relationship" or not, Obama should make clear that Israel must be held accountable for its actions – and that there are limits to US support. Obama can also use this moment to send a message that America recognizes the fundamental worth of Palestinian lives and dreams. While this may sound basic, its absence, especially over the past eight years, has made clear to the Arabs that America's "special relationship" with Israel undermines its claims to be an honest broker.

In 60 years of failed negotiations, one-sidedness has simply not worked. In 2000, the Clinton team undermined the Camp David negotiations by repeatedly pressing Israel's agenda while dismissing Palestinian arguments. This past year, when President Bush helped Israel celebrate its 60th anniversary, he pointedly declined to attend any similar commemoration by the Palestinians of their Nakba, or Catastrophe, when 750,000 Arabs of Palestine fled or were expelled.

An Obama administration that recognizes the inherently equal value of Palestinian aspirations will promote a new ethic and a new pragmatism. For talks to succeed, the US must tell hard truths to old friends and make a clean break with the tired road maps of the past.

Obama's team should follow the advice of former Secretary of State Colin Powell and bring Hamas into future talks. Any agreement reached only with Mahmoud Abbas, the beleaguered leader of the West Bank Palestinians, would be backed by only a fraction of his people.

Future negotiations will also be fraught with thousands of new facts on the ground. In 1993, when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin famously shook hands, the Jewish settler population in the West Bank was 109,000; now, after 15 years of the "peace process," it's up to 275,000. East Jerusalem, the supposed future Palestinian capital, is now ringed with Jewish settlements. The hard reality of any new negotiation is that because of Israel's Judaization of the West Bank, the two state solution, long considered the only path to peace, is on life support.

Early signs suggest the Obama team is inclined to continue the Middle East status quo. But Obama is nothing if not practical and shrewd. He surely recognizes that in the aftermath of the carnage in Gaza, he will have the opportunity to make visionary change in the long-term interest of all parties. And he knows that the bleak alternatives – a new Palestinian intifada, diplomatic rifts across the Arab world, more wars without end – would undermine his desperately needed efforts to remake the image of America in the world.

Sandy Tolan is author of "The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East" and a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

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