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Analysts: Gaza Might Be Obama's First Foreign Policy Crisis

Middle East analysts say the fierce fighting in the Gaza Strip might be the first major foreign policy crisis for Barack Obama when he is sworn in as U.S. president January 20. The massive Israeli air and ground assault against Hamas militants in Gaza has claimed nearly 700 lives. And analysts say Mr. Obama's initial challenge could be attaining a lasting cease-fire.

Israel's decision to launch a massive military assault on the Gaza Strip in an effort to end Hamas rocket attacks on civilians in the Jewish state is a crisis that is not likely to be resolved when Barack Obama is sworn in as president in less than two weeks.

Martin Indyk, a Middle East expert who served two tours as U.S. Ambassador to Israel, says the deadly fighting will require the new president's immediate attention.

"His first challenge, depending on what exactly the situation is going to be like on January 20, is to achieve a sustainable cease-fire. I think the diplomatic efforts that are beginning now to get a cease-fire may well have borne fruit by January 20th. But my own experience in the Middle East is that everything takes a lot longer than one expects," he said.

Indyk says it is important for the new president and Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton to launch a diplomatic initiative immediately following a cease-fire to try to move forward a political process of reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israel ended its 38-year military occupation of Gaza in 2005 and says it has no intention of permanently reoccupying the narrow coastal strip along the Mediterranean with a population of about 1.5 million people.

Hamas took military control of Gaza in 2007 from rival Fatah forces leading Israel to clamp tight restrictions on the border in an attempt to end rocket attacks from the militant group, which in its founding charter calls for Israel's destruction.

Danny Gillerman, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, says his country's goals are clear.

"Our aims are to dramatically change the security situation in the south to put an end to rocket firing - to put an end to terror, to put an end to smuggling and to put an end to the rearming of Hamas," he said.

Analysts say the Obama administration's policies on the Middle East must recognize how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is intertwined with other challenges in the region.

"One of the great mistakes that we have made most particularly over the course of the last eight years has been to believe that we can compartmentalize these different policies - that we can somehow separate what is happening between Israel and the Palestinians from what is happening in Iraq, what is happening with Iran and what is happening in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and everywhere else in the Middle East. The truth is that all of these things are deeply interconnected," said Kenneth Pollack, a former Middle East analyst at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and now a Senior Fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, who directs the Middle East Democracy and Development Project at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy also at the Brookings Institution, says Israel's military offensive carries numerous risks for the Israeli government and she predicts that officials will be looking for a way to end the conflict before the new U.S. president is sworn into office.

"If this ground operation drags on from now through January 20th, my suspicion is that the strategic gains for Israel are going to taper off quite sharply in this operation," she said. "By then, they will be looking hard for a way to climb down from their tree [and end the offensive]."

Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, says Barack Obama must be careful not to let the crisis in Gaza define his administration's policy toward the region.

"I think if you say something about this crisis as your very first thing, you do not have a second chance to make a first impression, then you really are tying your hands in a way that is consequential. I think it is a mistake, a big mistake for him to intervene in this crisis. As much as many of us want to see some nuanced policy on the Arab-Israeli issue, but this is not the time for him to intervene," he said.

Telhami says that while the fighting in Gaza is very serious, it remains only a small part of the overall Arab-Israeli conflict. He says that soon after Mr. Obama becomes president, he should make a comprehensive statement on the Middle East.

Mr. Obama has promised to hit the ground running on renewed efforts to achieve a broad peace agreement shortly after January 20.