Despite attempts by Israel’s critics to deflect responsibility for the violence of the last week, there’s no question that the conflict along the border between Israel and Gaza is exclusively the fault of Hamas. The Islamist terrorist group chose to escalate the clash from a steady but small number of rockets fired regularly from Gaza to the massive barrage that engulfed southern Israel last weekend. Since then, emboldened by its diplomatic support from Egypt and Turkey, Hamas has chosen to up the ante at every point when it could have backed down in the last seven days. It has gone from pounding the region next to Gaza to launching missiles at Tel Aviv and even Jerusalem. In doing so, Hamas has not only terrorized millions of Israelis, but it has endangered the lives of Palestinian civilians, whom they use as human shields. Hamas has sacrificed the lives and property of the people of both Israel and Gaza by firing rockets indiscriminately at civilians and hiding their weapons among their own people. But Hamas’s cowardly leaders aren’t the only ones at fault. President Obama bears some responsibility too.
It is true that the administration’s behavior during the present crisis has been exemplary. The White House and State Department have condemned Hamas and endorsed Israel’s right to self-defense against its attacks. Rather than pressure Israel to accept a premature cease-fire or to halt its efforts to take out Hamas missile caches and terrorist cadres, Washington has seemed to give Jerusalem a blank check to do what needs to be done with regard to Gaza. Yet even as these positions deserve praise, it must also be understood that an administration policy of engagement with Hamas’s diplomatic backers has directly led to the current crisis. By leading from behind in the Middle East, the United States has largely abdicated its leadership role. Washington’s passivity in the Syrian crisis, and its embrace of the Islamist regime in Turkey and the new Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, has materially contributed to a situation where Hamas feels it can act with relative impunity.
Barack Obama arrived in the White House four years ago determined to create more distance between the United States and Israel. By picking fights with Israel’s government, the president achieved that and more. Ironically, his pressure on Israel to make concessions led to the Palestinian Authority taking even more hard-line stands and avoiding peace negotiations. But while the administration has appeared to repent of these stands during its election-year Jewish charm offensive, it has compounded this error by giving unconditional support to Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood as it seized power in Egypt after the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
No one should blame Obama for Mubarak’s collapse. Nor did his feckless approach to the Middle East create the Arab Spring, in which radical Islamists gained ground throughout the region. But by deliberately choosing to lower America’s profile and adopt a “light footprint,” the United States has become a powerless bystander as Syria descended into chaos and the formerly isolated regime in Gaza suddenly found itself backed by powerful friends.
Democrats bitterly criticized George W. Bush’s foreign policy as a neocon failure. But though Bush made plenty of mistakes, the weak stance of his successor has enabled Hamas to become a confident regional player.
While the United States would desperately like to be able to broker a cease-fire, President Obama finds himself utterly without leverage. Israel is grateful for his current support, but after years of being dumped on by Washington, Netanyahu has no reason to trust the president. And though he claims Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as one of his best foreign friends and has done much to reach out to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, neither has paid any attention to the president’s pleas to pressure their ally Hamas into stop firing on Israel.
Though Netanyahu has no desire to invade Gaza and would have been happy to avoid the entire conflict, he has been forced to hit back hard precisely because Obama’s friends have encouraged Hamas to launch this war and to persist in their rocket fire on Israeli civilians.
Even if the president were to start acting like a leader now by publicly demanding that Egypt and Turkey cease their support for Hamas and making it clear that the terror group should not be allowed to profit from their outrages, it may already be too late.
Just as Obama’s weak diplomatic stance and comical engagement encouraged Iran to stick to their nuclear dreams, an administration that has been voting absent in the region is in no position to use what is left of its leverage to make Hamas’s backers listen to reason. Nor is it entirely a coincidence that Hamas would choose to start this war after the president’s re-election rather than before it. President Obama’s “light footprint” and friendship with Islamists has made it difficult if not impossible for the United States to influence these events or to make it harder for the terrorists in Gaza to keep shooting. Hamas started this war, but Obama helped make it possible.