With Obama mum on Gaza, Democrats move to fill void

Silence, sometimes golden, also may be perceived as yellow.

Democrats, increasingly antsy about President-elect Barack Obama’s refusal to weigh in on the Gaza war, are looking for ways to keep Republicans and other Obama critics from making an issue of his silence.

Israel launched its operation Dec. 27, during the Christmas-New Year’s lull in the United States. As of Jan. 6, the new Congress was in session and both houses — led by Democrats — were scrambling to push out a resolution that is likely to be robustly pro-Israel.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House of Representatives’ Middle East subcommittee, said it was appropriate for the president-elect to hold his tongue until after he takes office Jan. 20.

“I would be upset and surprised if he wasn’t maintaining silence,” Ackerman said in a conference call with journalists after returning from a tour of Israel that included stops on the Gaza Strip border. “We don’t have two commanders in chief. We don’t have co-presidents.”

Obama for the first time on Jan. 6 ventured a little further than his insistence that there cannot be “two presidents at a time” on foreign policy — and in so doing suggested his path could indeed differ from President George W. Bush, who has steadfastly backed Israel’s right to withhold a cease-fire until it has guarantees Hamas will no longer launch rockets. Obama suggested he would aggressively pursue an end to the conflict.

“Starting at the beginning of our administration, we are going to engage effectively and consistently in trying to resolve the conflicts that exist in the Middle East,” Obama said. “So on Jan. 20, you will be hearing directly from me in my opinions on this issue. Until then, my job is to monitor the situation and put together the best possible national security team so that we hit the ground running once we are responsible for national security issues.”

Obama said he was paying close attention to the civilian casualties on both sides.

“The loss of civilian life in Gaza and in Israel is a source of deep concern to me,” he said. “And after Jan. 20, I’m going to have plenty to say about the issue.”

Another sign that Obama would make the Middle East a front-burner issue were multiple reports Jan. 6 that he would make Richard Haass a special envoy to the region and Dennis Ross a special envoy on Iran.

Haass is a protege of Colin Powell, Bush’s former secretary of state who backed Obama in the election. Haass is a “realist” who believes that solving the Israel-Palestinian crisis is critical.

That’s a contrast with Ross, the Clinton administration’s top Middle East envoy. Ross said during the Obama campaign that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is intractable for now.

Obama also emphasized that his prevailing consideration was American interests. Suggestions that they are not coincident with Israel’s in this case are sure to rattle some in the pro-Israel community.

Conflict resolution is “not only right for the people in that region,” Obama said during a brief news conference. “Most importantly, it’s right for the national security of the American people and the stability that is so important to this country.”

Pro-Israel Democrats might not appreciate such nuance. Ackerman said he hoped Obama’s response would hew to what the president-elect said when he visited Israel’s front line with Gaza over the summer. At that time, Obama said he would do whatever he could to protect his daughters if they were threatened by rocket attacks.

Martin Indyk, a top Middle East peace negotiator in the Clinton administration, said Obama would have little choice except to push for a cease-fire.

“Gaza is on a seam line of conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians, between Arabs and Iran, and between Islam and the West,” Indyk said at the unveiling Jan. 5 of a Middle East policy memo to Obama he wrote with Kenneth Pollack, also a Clinton administration veteran. “His first challenge is to achieve a sustainable cease-fire.”

Ackerman acknowledged the no-win options inherent when a presidential transition and a crisis coincide.

“It would send very confusing messages in any serious operation we might be in” if Obama commented, he said. “The enemy or potential enemy would read nuances, just as the press is reading nuances into his saying nothing.”

Not that Obama critics weren’t ready to step into the breach. The Zionist Organization of America this week “expressed concern, puzzlement and disappointment” at Obama’s silence.

For congressional Democrats commenting on the situation, the trick, insiders said, is to sound robustly pro-Israel while not tying down the president-elect to a policy that could restrict his options come Jan. 20.

Jewish groups deluged Democrats with phone calls two days before the formal launch of Congress on Jan. 6. Conservatives began to whisper that it was “odd” that Obama continued to defer to President Bush on the issue.

On Jan. 5, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House of Representatives majority leader, said that a nonbinding resolution was “in the works.” Hoyer said he was looking at such a resolution being drafted by staffers for Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who represents parts of the San Fernando Valley and is the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“Certainly it would not demand a cease-fire,” Hoyer said. “It would speak to the conditions that would justify a cease-fire. A cease-fire is not a just cease-fire when it’s just Israel” holding fire.

In a signal of the issue’s sensitivity, the resolution was being drafted “in-house,” without the usual consultation with outside pro-Israel groups. It also was aimed at co-opting Republicans in a bid to keep them from “out-hawking” the Democrats on the issue.

Leaders in both houses — Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the House speaker, and Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader — both spoke at length Jan. 3 with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

“Israel has to continue until they stop the rockets and mortars coming into Israel maiming, injuring and killing Israelis,” Reid said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Americans for Peace Now, apparently having learned of the resolution, distributed talking points on the Hill on Jan. 5.

Any pro-Israel statement should include “a clear recognition that a cease-fire is in the vital interests of both Israel and America” and “a demand that any new cease-fire be accompanied by efforts to lay the groundwork for the kind of changes on the ground and the establishment of a political process that can avoid a return to military action in the future,” the group said in its e-mail blast to lawmakers’ offices.

In the meantime, AIPAC rushed an Israeli army statement to members of Congress within minutes of the blasting of a Gaza school that killed as many as 40 Palestinians displaced by the fighting. The army statement said its forces were returning fire from Hamas militants stationed in the compound.

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief