(CNSNews.com) – President Obama on Sunday played down the notion that the conflict between Israel and Hamas has been complicated by “Arab spring” transitions in the Middle East.
Despite warnings from various Arab leaders and Turkey that Israel faces a new environment in the changing Middle East, Obama pointed out that conflict between Israelis and Palestinians had been going on long before what he described as “democratization in the region.”
Speaking in Thailand on the first day of a Southeast Asia tour, he reiterated the administration’s support for Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
“We are actively working with all the parties in the region to see if we can end those missiles being fired without further escalation of violence in the region,” Obama said.
Israel last Wednesday launched a military operation targeting Hamas militant figures, infrastructure and rocket launch sites in response to a build-up of rocket attacks from the coastal strip. Palestinian reports say more than 70 people have been killed. Israel reported three deaths from rocket fire, and Home Front Defense Minister Avi Dichter reported Sunday that 1,000 rockets had been fired into Israel over four days. Israel has mobilized up to 75,000 reservists.
Asked in Bangkok whether the Arab spring “has made matters worse,” Obama demurred.
“Let’s just remember that the exact same situation arose just a couple of years ago, before the Arab spring,” he replied, alluding to the 22-day Israeli military operation against Hamas in Dec. 2008-Jan. 2009, also prompted by escalated rocket attacks.
“So I don’t think anybody would suggest somehow that it’s unique to democratization in the region that there’s a conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. That’s been going on for several decades now.”
Obama did acknowledge that it has now become more important for the U.S. and others to speak directly to Arab populations about the need for a negotiated settlement, rather than just to “a single figure in these Arab countries.”
Yet the political changes in the region have had a significant impact on Hamas. A largely quarantined terrorist faction backed by a similarly isolated Iran and the increasingly-unpopular Assad regime in Syria has been transformed into an organization enjoying strong support from the new Islamist-led governments in Cairo and Tunis. Hamas is also getting strong backing from the influential leaders of Turkey and Qatar who, while not themselves products of the Arab spring have capitalized on the changes.
When the Dec. 2008 conflict broke out Hamas had not hosted a single visiting leader to the territory it seized the previous year.
Less than a month ago, Qatar’s emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani became the first to visit Gaza – a show of support for Hamas that drew no criticism from the U.S. State Department, despite the fact the U.S. has designated Hamas as a “foreign terrorist organization” since 1997.
On Friday Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi sent his prime minister to Gaza, Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdesslem followed on Saturday, and on Sunday Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his foreign minister will visit next, probably on Tuesday as part of a delegation of Arab foreign ministers.
‘Many things have changed’
Hamas’ new circumstances were also vividly underscored by various weekend meetings in Cairo involving Morsi – a veteran of the same Muslim Brotherhood that spawned Hamas as its Palestinian branch in 1987 – Erdogan, al-Thani and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.
In their statements on Gaza a number of leaders are emphasizing the changed regional situation.
“All must realize the situation is different than before, and the people of the region now are different than before and the leaders are different than before,” Morsi said during a joint press appearance with Erdogan.
“Israel should understand that many things have changed and that lots of water has run in the Arab river,” Tunisia’s Abdesslem said during his visit to Gaza Saturday. “It should realize it no longer has a free hand.”
“I am calling on [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu: We are not in 2008. We are in 2012 and conditions are different than 2008,” Turkey’s Anatolia news agency quoted Erdogan as saying during a speech in Cairo. “Make your calculations correctly,” he advised.
“Egypt is different from yesterday and Arabs today are different from yesterday,” Morsi told worshippers in a Cairo mosque a day earlier. “I say confidently that Egypt will not leave Gaza alone. We seek to be a protective shield for our Arab and Islamic nation.”
“Post-revolution Egypt is no longer a strategic treasure except for Arabs and Palestinians,” the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party said in a statement during a rally at its headquarters in support of Gaza.
It welcomed Morsi’s decision to withdraw Egypt’s ambassador from Israel, and called for a total severing of ties and a review of the Egypt-Israel peace agreement.
In an earlier statement the Brotherhood party said, “Israel should be warned that the changes recently witnessed in the Arab region, especially in Egypt, cannot allow Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people to go unpunished as in the past.”
“It is no longer acceptable to occupy people’s land and usurp their freedom,” Tunisia’s ruling Ennhada party said in a statement on Gaza last week.
The Obama administration has said repeatedly in recent days that it views Egypt in particular as a key player in efforts to “de-escalate” the Gaza crisis.
“Those who are engaging with Hamas right now can take the necessary steps to create a situation of calm and stop firing rockets,” a State Department official traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Singapore on Saturday.
“We believe that Egypt has an important leadership role to play on this,” the official said. “We believe that they have the stature, the credibility, and the relationships to be able to persuade Hamas and its allies to stop.”
Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said Sunday Egypt’s response so far has been “pretty weak so far from what I can tell.”
“They’re going to have to take some very serious steps diplomatically to make it clear to Hamas that they’re going to lose support in the Arab world if they continue these rocket attacks on Israel,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was also critical of Egypt.
“Egypt – watch what you do and how you do it,” he said. “You’re teetering with the Congress on having your aid cut off if you keep inciting violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
An administration plan to give Morsi’s government $450 million in economic support funds has run up against opposition on Capitol Hill.
“Now is not the time to pull back from supporting these fragile democracies in North Africa and the Middle East,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last month in connection with the aid holdup. “It’s time to support those who are trying to take their countries in a democratic direction.”