Wednesday, 21 January 2009

16 January 2009

By the time you read this, I’ll be on my way to the US, to start preparing our coverage of the Presidential inauguration next Tuesday. I’ll have plenty to say about that in next week’s newsletter – but today, I’m afraid I need to return to events in Gaza.

My newsletter last week – or rather newsletters, plural – elicited an extraordinary response, both from subscribers to the newsletter and from readers of my blog. I rather expected when I wrote last week that by now a ceasefire would be in place. But no, the fighting goes on.

Which means that almost the first foreign policy issue Barack Obama will have to confront is the conflict there. It’s not what he had in mind … but it’ll serve as an early lesson that in politics, nothing ever goes according to plan.

So, what will he do? My hunch is that his approach will be relatively low-key and cautious. If there’s still no ceasefire in place by the time he’s sworn in (although my hunch is that there will be), I expect him to send an envoy to the region – someone from the Clinton days, who knows the principal players. The name Dennis Ross springs to mind.

I don’t think he’ll engage directly with Hamas. Or at least not yet, and not openly. But I do think he’ll signal a greater openness to the Palestinians … if he can, he’ll want to strengthen the position of the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. He may find it’s too late for that.

And don’t forget that Israel’s best friends in Washington are not necessarily in the White House, but in Congress. You may have heard the Israeli historian Avi Schlaim on the programme last week: some people, he remarked, refer to the US Congress as “Israeli-occupied territory”.

And that won’t change simply because there’s a new President. But nor should you forget that the US won’t necessarily always be as supportive of Israel as it has been in recent years. After all, as those of you with very long memories will recall, at the time of the Suez crisis in 1956, it was the US that put an end to the Israeli-French-British military intervention designed to regain control of the Suez Canal.

Many of Mr Obama’s top foreign policy people were members of the Clinton administration. They know the score. President Clinton tried – and failed – right at the end of his second term in office to broker a deal between Israelis and Palestinians. Maybe lessons have been learned.

Next month, Israelis go to the polls. It may well be that within weeks of taking office, Mr Obama will find himself dealing with a hard-line Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, a man who made few friends in Washington the last time he was in office, between 1996 and 1999. Making peace between Israel and the Palestinians is certainly not going to get any easier.

On the other hand, everyone in the Middle East is going to want to impress the new man in the White House – and it’s just possible that when he isn’t trying to sort out the US economy, Mr Obama will be able to use his status as a new world leader to try out some new initiatives.

A quick word about next week: I’m heading to Alabama, the cradle of the civil rights movement, where I’ll be talking to some veterans of the struggle for equal rights and hearing their thoughts as they watch America’s first black president in history take the oath of office. Fifty years ago, they couldn’t sit at the front of a bus; on Tuesday, they’ll watch Barack Obama sworn in as their head of state. I do hope you’ll be able to tune in on Tuesday – if you miss it, it’ll be available in the usual way, via Listen Again on the website.

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