With the Bush administration signaling a green light to Israeli military action in Gaza and President-elect Obama holding to a "one president at a time" silence, other powers are vying to fill the vacuum left by the absence of more forceful American diplomacy.
Those powers range from European and Arab leaders, who hope to broker a cease-fire and stave off a full-scale humanitarian crisis, to Iran, which aims to stoke anti-Israel and anti-US sentiments that Israel's actions in Gaza have ignited in the region.
Prospects for any progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord – and for an Israeli-Arab rapprochement – may hang in the balance. That explains both the frantic efforts at the United Nations to halt the fighting and Iran's preference to see the crisis deepen.
Unabated military action in coming days – or even weeks, Israeli officials say – is also likely to present Mr. Obama with a much grimmer situation in the Middle East than anticipated when he takes office. Whether he enters the Oval Office in two weeks to a raging crisis or to a renewed cease-fire will go a long way to determining how the new president is able to pursue his stated priority of addressing America's image in the Islamic world.
"The Obama people are hoping this crisis runs its course before they take the wheel, because if it's still going on they will have to deal with it front and center on the foreign-policy plate," says Wayne White, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington and a former official with the State Department Policy Planning staff. "They had hoped to get off on a different foot in the Middle East than to be handed this mess."
Who's pressing for a cease-fire?
Diplomatic efforts to reach a cease-fire continued in the region and at the United Nations Monday. Leaders of the Arab League were set to meet UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon Monday afternoon to press their demands for a cease-fire.
Several European leaders including French President Nicolas Sarkozy were in the Middle East also promoting an immediate cease-fire.
Israel, however, shows no signs of bowing to international pressure to end its 10-day offensive against Hamas and its military structure.
At a press conference Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni dismissed the European idea to place international observers in Gaza to monitor Hamas military activity and to stop the rocket fire into Israel that set off the Israeli offensive. Saying, "I don't see how this can help," she called instead for an international mission on Gaza's border with Egypt to close down tunnels used for smuggling arms into Gaza and to prevent new ones from being dug.
In the meantime, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the last minute canceled a long-scheduled trip to China this week to focus on the crisis. But that was not a signal that the Bush administration is about to modify its course and pressure Israel to curtail its offensive, diplomatic analysts say.
"I highly doubt there will be any changes in approach in the last two weeks of this administration," says Sam Lewis, a former US ambassador to Israel and a senior adviser to the Israel Policy Forum, an organization of experts advocating Mideast peace. The United States blocked UN Security Council action on the crisis over the weekend, and that stance won't change until Israel is ready for diplomatic action, Mr. Lewis says.
"Everything depends on how well the military operations go over the next two weeks," he says. "But we're not going to see any action or statement out of the Security Council unless there's some kind of signal from the Israeli government to our government that it's time to try to have one."
President Bush said Monday any cease-fire to end the Gaza crisis must include provisions that prevent Hamas from using the territory to fire rockets into Israel.
"Instead of caring about the people of Gaza, Hamas decided to use Gaza to use rockets to kill innocent Israelis," Mr. Bush said at the White House Monday. "Israel's obviously decided to protect itself."
Bush's comments came amid word that deaths from the military action top 540, many of them civilians.
Moderate Arabs willing for Hamas to take a slap
The Israelis are in the driver's seat for now, the Middle East Institute's Mr. White agrees – and not just because the US, whether under Bush or Obama, is unlikely to reverse course and start pressuring the Israelis to stop their offensive before they've achieved their goals. Another reason is that many moderate Arab governments privately are not all that upset with Israel's offensive against the radical Islamists of Hamas and would like to see the organization dealt a harsh blow.
"They don't want to admit it, because they have their elites and the street to contend with, but the Arab governments would not be unhappy to see Hamas come out of this with a serious black eye or worse," White says. "These governments, like the Egyptians and the Saudis, fear Hamas viscerally because of their own Islamic militants."
Concern that Iran is benefiting from the crisis remains one factor in the diplomatic efforts and in how much leeway Israel continues to enjoy. An Iranian official on Sunday called for Islamic nations to cut off oil exports from Israel's supporters – a proposal seen mainly as a propaganda move aimed at the Arab street. Iran is content to see Israel involved in a deepening battle with Hamas – and slammed for mounting civilian deaths in Gaza – just as it was with Israel's 2006 incursion into Lebanon to fight Hezbollah.
"One of the main results of this flare-up may be to convince the Arab governments that Iran is even more dangerous than they thought," Lewis says. "Once again they're seeing [the Iranians'] determination to stir the pot."
Iran may indeed reap some short-term benefits with its domestic audience and on the "Islamic street," White says. But it's a mistake to see Hamas as Iran's proxy in the crisis, he adds.
"The fact is Iran provides some aid [to Hamas], but they just don't have the role on the ground they might have hoped for," he says. "Hamas makes its own decisions and calls its own shots."
That means Hamas will still be a factor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when Obama takes office, and – hot crisis or not in Gaza – will have to be dealt with.