Perfect timing

Our view: Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire fits the schedule of incoming U.S. president

January 21, 2009

It's no coincidence that Israeli troops halted their devastating strikes on the Gaza Strip and began withdrawing from the Palestinian enclave the weekend before Barack Obama's inaugural festivities. Politics took precedence over military goals in deference to America's 44th president. But the underlying causes of Israel's three-week-old war against Hamas militants remain. They are at the center of the region's problems and Israel's fight for its future.

Helping resolve this decades-old conflict falls now to President Obama. He must be forceful but even-handed. A strong advocate of the Jewish state, Mr. Obama is also looked to by many in the Arab world as someone who will return America's role in the troubled region to that of a neutral broker. George W. Bush waited until his last year in office to engage in this struggle. President Obama has ample reasons to get involved sooner. He has signaled that he intends to respond to the region's problems with regional solutions.

But more immediate concerns were painfully apparent in the Gaza Strip yesterday. Israel's air and ground war succeeded in crippling the leadership of Hamas, which controls Gaza, and the reach of its military wing, but at a tremendous cost to Palestinian civilians. More than 1,300 were killed and thousands more wounded, according to health officials' reports to United Nations representatives. Blocks of Palestinian communities were destroyed and such basic needs as water, food and medical care were severely compromised.

It's too soon to know if Israel's unstated aim - to destabilize Hamas and its elected government - was accomplished. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is based in the West Bank and heads the rival faction to Hamas, reissued a call for a unity government that would lead the rebuilding of Gaza with international support. That would bolster his Fatah faction and give European donors a way to respond without directly helping Hamas. But there's no indication Hamas would agree to it.

The split between Palestinians with two different groups governing Gaza and the West Bank has complicated efforts to resume substantive peace talks. New elections might resolve the break, but that could backfire with Palestinians throwing their support to Hamas in protest of Israel's punishing military operation to stop Hamas rocket attacks in southern Israel.

For that reason and others, Mr. Obama needs to appoint a strong but imaginative negotiator as Mideast envoy, someone who will prod but also guide the two parties toward a resumption of peace talks. Mr. Obama was reportedly considering George J. Mitchell, the respected former senator from Maine, for that job. He would be an astute interlocutor. As the top negotiator in the Northern Ireland peace process, Mr. Mitchell knows intimately the devastating consequences of religious extremism, cultural enmity and terrorist attacks, elements common to both conflicts.

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