Shaking up Obama’s to-do list

SHAKING UP OBAMA’S TO-DO LIST…. Israeli airstrikes on Hamas institutions continued for a third consecutive day, and the death toll in Gaza is well over 300. There hasn’t been this much bloodshed among Israelis and Palestinians, in such a short period of time, in more than 40 years.

As the conflict relates to U.S. politics, the Politico‘s Ben Smith and Harry Siegel report that Barack Obama probably wasn’t planning on dealing with an Israeli crisis immediately upon taking office in three weeks, but the crisis will nevertheless be waiting for him when he gets to the Oval Office.

The incoming administration had planned to focus on the economic crisis and recalibrating U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan in its early months — but the Israeli assault on Hamas may have instantly changed that calculus.

“For all the talk of putting the [Middle East] conflict on the back burner, it’s going force itself onto the front burner,” said Daniel Levy, a fellow at the New America Institute. Levy said that if the conflict in Gaza is still ongoing when Obama takes office, he will face regional and international pressure to broker a settlement.

“It could involve the administration very early,” Levy said.

I’m not sure just how much “talk” there’s been about downplaying U.S. policy in the Middle East, but the point is nevertheless fair — the violence is likely to be ongoing in mid-January and Obama’s administration will likely have to engage quickly. No one’s sure, however, what that engagement might look like.

The “only one president at a time” line may seem tired at this point, but Obama’s reticence on the crisis is hardly unreasonable. After all, he’s not the president, the existing administration is presumably working on addressing the conflict, and the last thing the government needs is two presidents sending different messages to the Middle East right now. The Politico piece noted, “When Obama does speak, his words will be carefully parsed — particularly by decision makers in Jerusalem weighing how long to continue the offensive in the face of worldwide calls for a ceasefire.” Given those circumstances, Obama can and should prepare for a constructive diplomatic role in the new year, while saying very little now.

And what’s wrong with that? At face value, nothing, but there are two complicating factors. One, Obama has been critical of Hamas before the election, and Israeli officials are using his previous remarks to justify the aerial assaults now.

And two, Obama expects Bush to take the lead, and Bush is reluctant to interrupt his vacation.

In the meantime, Israeli defense minister has promised Hamas a “war to the bitter end.” What the “end” looks like is far from clear.

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