The conflict in Gaza presents a challenge for the incoming Obama administration, which already was facing a packed Middle East agenda. Leslie Gelb tells Steve Inskeep that the question now is whether the situation in Gaza will make it harder for President-elect Barack Obama to keep his campaign promises of active peacemaking between the Israelis and Palestinians. Gelb is a former state and defense department official and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.
The latest fighting in the Middle East comes just a few weeks before a new American administration takes office. And to talk about what they might or might not be able to do, we're joined by Leslie Gelb. He's on the line from New York. He's a former U.S. diplomat, now with the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome to the program.
Dr. LESLIE GELB (President Emeritus, Council on Foreign Relations): Good to be here.
INSKEEP: Is it clear to you what the Obama administration's at least starting policy toward the Middle East is?
Dr. GELB: I think it's a mystery to me and I suspect it's a mystery to them. I think we can bet that he's not going to be as pro-Israeli as the Bush administration has been. George Bush has been the most pro-Israeli president I think we've ever had. The Obama administration will be less so and try to steer more of a middle course between Israel and the Arab states. You know, we know a good deal about the Obama people going into this new administration, and they are more tilted toward Israel, but basically middle-of-the-roaders, with the exception of Hillary Clinton who is quite pro-Israel. And as for Obama himself, he's made the requisite pro-Israeli statements during the campaign, but we don't know what this guy's going to do. And I suspect he's going to surprise us in areas like Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
INSKEEP: Does President-elect Obama have a reservoir of goodwill that he can draw on in the Arab world?
Dr. GELB: I think that President Obama will start off his tenure with very positive feelings throughout the world. People want the United States to be the leader. They understand if we don't lead, nobody is going to be able to lead.
INSKEEP: Although I wonder is there a limited window for the president-elect? People are very hopeful on January 20th around the world, or in the Arab world, but if something that happens that they don't like on January 25th, it's all over.
Dr. GELB: That's the way the press will put it. But it's up to President Obama to define his own priorities. And he is sitting on top of so many major problems, he cannot deal with them all simultaneously: Arab-Israeli, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Pakistan-India. You're going to have to do a kind of diplomatic triage and figure out the key one to start with and move from there.
INSKEEP: And persuade other people to be patient and wait?
Dr. GELB: And persuade them to be patient and wait, even though they're going to start criticizing you the minute anything flares up in one of the areas that you're not treating as the topmost priority.
INSKEEP: Let me remember, because you're talking about interconnected problems. The Bush administration approached this thinking that if they solved one big problem, it might have an effect on others. And I may be oversimplifying here, but, for example, toppling Saddam Hussein, some people in the administration thought might make it easier to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, might make it easier to deal with Iran, might make it easier to deal with Syria and get a lot of problems off the table over time. That's what they thought. Didn't precisely work out that way. But I wonder if you have any sense that people in the incoming administration think if we attacked this particular problem first, it's going to help us with the others?
Dr. GELB: Yeah, I doubt that they'll choose Arab-Israeli to go first - that is the first place to really invest American power. They'll do something to start a diplomatic process because you can't let the Israelis and the Palestinians feel that we're neglecting them. So you've got to get a diplomatic and political process under way in that region. And in the case of the Palestinians and the Israelis, they've got to feel we have a way of changing the politics among the Palestinians and the Israelis so that there will be support for a deal.
INSKEEP: Although if you're saying as the Obama administration, you can't go first with the Arab-Israeli conflict, you have to solve these other problems first, isn't that conflict this constant irritant that makes it harder to deal with Pakistan, harder to deal with Muslims all over the world?
Dr. GELB: There's no question that this infests everything else. And on the other hand, we're fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And as I said, when you have so many first-order problems, you have to do a kind of national interest diplomatic triage. And in this case, it is not to ignore the Palestinian-Israeli situation, not in the least, but to set a process in motion that they will find a plausible way of solving it two, three, four years hence.
INSKEEP: Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations, thanks for your insight.
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Israeli Official Issues Warning As Airstrikes Continue
hide captionAt top, a column of smoke and debris rises as the Israeli air force strikes Palestinian targets Thursday in the northern Gaza Strip. The second photo shows return rocket fire from the same area in northern Gaza, launched just seconds later to the north of Israel.
Photos by David P. Gilkey/NPR
At top, a column of smoke and debris rises as the Israeli air force strikes Palestinian targets Thursday in the northern Gaza Strip. The second photo shows return rocket fire from the same area in northern Gaza, launched just seconds later to the north of Israel.
hide captionResidents of Sderot and visitors from nearby towns gather on a hilltop in southern Israel overlooking Gaza to catch a glimpse of Israeli warplanes dropping bombs in the distance Thursday. Sderot was also under fire from incoming Qassam rockets fired from Gaza during the day.
David P. Gilkey/NPR
Residents of Sderot and visitors from nearby towns gather on a hilltop in southern Israel overlooking Gaza to catch a glimpse of Israeli warplanes dropping bombs in the distance Thursday. Sderot was also under fire from incoming Qassam rockets fired from Gaza during the day.
Israeli fighter jets pounded Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip for a sixth day Thursday, and Palestinian doctors say the death toll in the territory now tops 400. One airstrike Thursday killed Nizar Rayan, the most senior Hamas leader to die since the Israeli offensive began Saturday.
Meanwhile, rocket fire continued to rain down on towns in southern Israel, and a senior Israeli Cabinet minister warned that the conflict is far from over.
Not long after word of Rayan's death, warning sirens sounded throughout Israeli communities within rocket range of Gaza: More barrages were on the way. In Ashkelon, people abandoned their cars in the street and fled for cover.
Rockets also hit Ashdod and Beersheba again. Both cities are about 25 miles from Gaza. No one was seriously wounded in the latest rocket attacks.
Inside Gaza, the fire from the air proved far more deadly. At least 17 Palestinians were killed Thursday, according to a senior medical official in Gaza, and 92 were wounded.
Rayan was an important figure in Hamas' political and military wings. A professor of Islamic law and an imam, or Islamic preacher, Rayan openly advocated renewing suicide bomb attacks against Israel. He was in his house in north Gaza's Jabalia refugee camp when the bombs struck.
The Israeli military said in a statement that the house was used as a weapons storage site and Hamas communications center. In addition to Rayan, the airstrike killed at least 11 others, including several of his children and two of his four wives. The airstrike also wounded civilians in the densely packed neighborhood.
Rami Abu Safeya lives in the Jabalia refugee camp near Rayan's house. Reached by telephone, he said, "We laid down on the floor, glass and windows broke all around us. The explosions continued, and then 10 people in my house ran away. Many people in the neighborhood were injured."
Israeli Official: 'It Will Take Time'
Back in Ashkelon on Thursday, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon said the operation against Hamas is far from over.
"This is not going to be an easy one. Therefore, we have to be very patient — very patient and very determined. And it will take time," Ramon said.
Israeli leaders have said from the start that the goal of the punishing air and naval bombardments is to create "a new security reality" in the south and end Hamas rocket fire — not to overthrow the Islamist group or re-occupy Gaza.
But on Thursday, Ramon argued that regime change in Gaza should be the wider goal of the operation. Ramon said ideally the moderate Palestinian Authority leadership led by Mahmoud Abbas — which now controls only the West Bank — should be returned to power in Gaza.
"Even to create a Palestinian state is impossible because the Hamas is dominating Gaza. It's impossible. And if the Hamas will continue to dominate Gaza, it will be impossible to continue the Annapolis process. Any peace process will be almost be impossible to reach. And that's exactly what the Hamas wants," Ramon said.
Conflicting Visions Among Israeli Leaders
But hardly anyone believes Israel can realistically uproot Hamas's deep support among Gaza's 1.5 million residents and impose a new, more moderate Palestinian leadership in the territory. Indeed, a senior Israeli official said later that Ramon was expressing his personal opinion and not government policy. The official said "regime change is not the operation's goal. We have no illusions about that. The goal is to bring about a new quiet in the south."
That stated goal could give Hamas leverage in any cease-fire talks. Hamas leaders have said they want an end to Israel's stifling economic blockade of Gaza in exchange for a new, informal truce.
The conflicting visions among Israeli leaders of what Gaza might look like when the shooting stops is reminiscent of the 2006 Lebanon war. Then, Israeli officials seemed frequently at odds over the goals and day-after scenarios of a conflict that many Israelis say marked a profound failure of leadership.