What should the United States do about the war in Gaza? That's the question plaguing policy-makers in Washington these days as they watch the unfolding conflict between Israel and Hamas.
The cause for the current fighting – and its morality – is exceedingly clear. Since its bloody ouster of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party from the Gaza Strip 18 months ago, Hamas has established a virtual terrorist enclave there.
The radical Islamist movement has used its time in Gaza not to govern, as some had hoped, but to build up a formidable arsenal of weapons – arms that it has used to wage a systematic campaign of asymmetric terror against Israel. Its stated goal? The destruction of its neighbor.
For years, the Israeli government did little in response to Hamas' provocations, hoping against hope that it could hammer out some sort of "cold peace" with the militants next door. All of that changed last month, when Hamas abrogated a fragile six-month ceasefire and carried out a series of new rocket attacks against Israel.
This time, the response was decisive. On Dec. 27, the Israeli government launched "Operation Cast Lead," a defensive air – and now ground – campaign intended, in the words of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, to "to strike a severe blow to Hamas ... in order to bring about an end to firing and other operations against Israeli civilians and IDF soldiers."
But diplomatic pressure has been steadily building. European leaders, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, EU foreign policy czar Javier Solana and Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg, have already spearheaded a diplomatic mission to the area with the aim of securing a prompt ceasefire between the two sides. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has done much the same, demanding the international community take "decisive and swift and credible action" to bring an "immediate end" to the violence.
Where is Washington in all this? The U.S. government has made no secret of the fact that it sides with Israel in the current struggle, and rightly so.
In a radio address on Jan. 2, President Bush made clear that the blame for the crisis rests squarely on Hamas, and reiterated America's commitment to both Israel's security and the creation of "a peaceful and democratic Palestinian state that serves its citizens and respects its neighbors." But America can and should do more than simply provide moral support. Coming days are likely to see a variety of new diplomatic initiatives aimed at halting the current violence, with little regard for the current balance of power between Israel and Hamas.
By virtue of its permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, the United States has the ability to shape the way the world responds to the current crisis. It should use that power to ensure the Israeli government can fully attain its strategic objectives.
After all, there's a great deal riding on Israel's war effort. For Israel itself, the key to lasting security lies in eroding Hamas' power to terrorize, and simultaneously convincing the group that business as usual will no longer be tolerated.
For ordinary Palestinians, Israel's success would mean a neutered Hamas and the reassertion of power by its secular rival, Fatah – a state of affairs that could pave the way for political normalization in the Palestinian Territories.
Back in 2007, as part of his bid to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, President Bush outlined his dream of "two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security." Ironically, his administration's most lasting contribution to this goal might just rest in giving Israel the breathing room that it needs in order to do its current job right.