ANALYSIS / Aside from Iraq, Obama's plans for the Mideast are still vague
It is not at all clear if Obama wants to be more involved in the peace process than his predecessor.
Throughout all of Operation Cast Lead, the government diligently did not communicate with Barack Obama's staff. It wasn't because it wanted to maintain the honor of outgoing U.S. president George W. Bush. It was because the government didn't want to take the risk of Obama asking Israel to pull its army out of the Gaza Strip and stop its bombing campaign. Even after his inaugural address, the Obama administration's Middle East department remained closed off, and George Mitchell's appointment as special envoy to the Middle East doesn't contribute to the removal of the uncertainty surrounding Obama's intentions regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Mitchell, 75, is known in Israel as a cautious senator who likes to be in the center. In a report he submitted to Bush on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he proposed a complete freeze of settlement construction, but said the Palestinian Authority should rein in terror first.
From the perspective of the Middle East, the most important word of Obama's inaugural address regarded Iraq. One could have expected a speech that sounded more like a schedule than a vision and would at least hint at the promise that played such an important role in his campaign - the promise to get the American army out of Iraq. That imbued the left with hope and sowed concern on the right. Getting out of Iraq could spur the new administration to form a pro-American Arab coalition. Many in Washington see the images of Israel bombing Gaza as hampering the success of such a move. Nonetheless, if Obama needs favors from Syrian President Bashar Assad concerning Iraq, there is a chance (or a danger, depending on your perspective) that the new president will scratch off the rust from the Israeli-Syrian-American negotiation track.
Although the images from Gaza and sirens in Be'er Sheva nearly stole the show from Obama, he made do with a slight hint as to his discomfort regarding the death of civilians and harming of the weak. Unlike Bush, Obama highlighted the carrot - dialogue with the Muslim world - and minimized the stick of fighting terror. Either way, the inaugural address was no left-wing manifesto. The people behind the Geneva Initiative, who are encouraged by the appointment of Rahm Emmanuel - who supports the peace plan as Obama's chief of staff, will have to postpone their party.
The last poll they conducted, during the fighting in Gaza, does show that 68 percent of Israeli citizens want the new U.S. president to be more involved in the peace process - but it's not at all clear if that's also what Obama wants.