President-elect Barack Obama's conspicuous silence on the latest conflagration in the Middle East is perhaps not only tactical but also prudent. There is, after all, no defensible position to take in such a situation. But once in office, neutrality will not be much of an option. Obama is likely to fall back on the traditional American position articulated, if not as emphatically as his Republican predecessor, then just as sincerely, in support of Israel.
Obama's transition team has acted with alacrity to deny what was otherwise a heartening report by London's Guardian newspaper that cited unnamed sources as saying the incoming administration may be willing to initiate low-level talks with Hamas, thus reversing the Bush administration's dogmatic insistence on treating it as a pariah.
The denial notwithstanding, it makes sense to speculate that the timing of Israel's "incursion" into Gaza may have had to do with the possible softening of the American attitude toward Hamas based on Obama's campaign pledge to hold talks with adversaries without preconditions.
Acting on such a pledge will not be easy, not the least because of Obama's domestic political considerations. He has already signaled his conformist Middle East policy -remember the carte blanche he gave Tel Aviv during his trip to the Middle East in July, at the peak of the presidential campaign, saying Israel has every right to respond to rocket attacks by the Hamas? Obama did not bother to qualify it by urging Israel to stop the Gaza blockade, which Hamas claims as a reason for its attacks on the Jewish state.
In January last year, Obama belabored the same point in a letter to Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. "The Security Council should clearly and unequivocally condemn the rocket attacks against Israel, and should make clear that Israel has the right to defend itself against such actions," he wrote.
The president-elect -- who steered clear of former president Carter, who offended the pro-Israel lobby with his provocative book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid" -- is probably smart enough to know that winning the election is not enough and that he needs to keep not just the Jewish lobby but also the pro-Israel media in good humor if he wants to govern effectively and win a second term.
Besides, the experience of Bush 41 - who lost his re-election bid in 1992 after the Jewish vote turned against him because of his firm stand against Israeli settlements in Occupied Territories - remains instructive to any American politician.
Giving foreign policy charge to Hillary Clinton, among other things, can be also seen as Obama's move to assuage conservative Jewish-American apprehensions about a possible "change" in U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, thus freeing himself from looking over his political shoulder as he works for other changes we can believe in.
Clinton's pro-Israeli credentials are impeccable, particularly since she has taken extra care to be seen as being a friend of Israel after the unfortunate episode with Suha Arafat, which incidentally was characterized by some as a bit too cheeky for Semitic sensibilities.
Clinton's stewardship of the State Department guarantees continuity in U.S. Middle East policy, notwithstanding what are bound to be some well-publicized efforts to the contrary. The goodwill that she and former President Clinton enjoy in the region might help in managing the crises at hand, but may not be enough for dramatic breakthroughs.
Continuity precludes any chance of President Obama brokering a Middle East accord that paves the way for a two-state solution -- assuming that the idea of an independent Palestinian state doesn't become passé even before the new administration finds its bearings. John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and a neoconservative, has already come up with a three-state solution - giving off Gaza to Egypt and the West Bank to Jordan. That comes close to Bertolt Brecht's suggestion to the East German communist regime after the suppression of the 1953 workers' uprising - elect a new people.
Besides, a two-nation accord would entail the improbable participation of Hamas in the peace process. Secretary Rice's year-long effort to follow the roadmap to Middle East peace through the good offices of emasculated President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian National Authority has been so worthless that it is not even listed as a failure in Bush housekeeping records.
Israel, which squandered a great opportunity to marginalize Hamas and its Iranian patrons by rejecting the Arab League peace plan of 2002, has voided even the remote possibility of Hamas' participation in any talks by invading Gaza. Beyond some indirect talks with regard to a face-saving and damage-limiting cease-fire, it is unlikely that Hamas will be willing to negotiate with Israel or the U.S. either from the position of strength or weakness.
That would suit Tel Aviv just fine - there are many in Israel who believe the rise of religious fundamentalism could serve to undermine Palestinian nationalism. Perverse as it may seem, such a tactical distraction could buy time for Israel as the current conflict between the West and the terrorists evolves into a more purposeful contest between secularists and Islamists.
Fortunately, the Obama administration may not be judged by its failure to find a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict that has eluded gentile American presidents since Harry Truman, who probably created it. Perhaps, someday a Jewish-American president who can inspire and rally people in both America and Israel -- someone like Michael Bloomberg -- might succeed in bringing about a lasting peace and a just solution. Insha'Aallah.
Sunil Adam is editor of "The Indian American," a general-interest magazine published from New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Sunil Adam on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SunilAdam