On January 20th, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have to hit the ground running. The lack of American leadership is palpable around the world. Israel has pounded the Gaza Strip for the last four days. They did this in retaliation to multiple rocket attacks into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip. This is a typical scenario. Israel takes a pounding and then retaliates disproportionately. The retaliation inevitably causes an international outcry. Sometime soon thereafter, Israel stops the offensive and we go back to square one. Soon-to-be Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must break this cycle.
Personally, I think it is important that we support Israel. The Palestinians, though, are living in abhorrent conditions. Their standard of living must be raised. If you have something to live for, then you are less likely to want to turn yourself into a human bomb. Hillary Clinton must find the balance that has escaped George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and her husband, Bill Clinton. She must find a way to get all the parties involved to begin the discussion and to find a solution to the problem. This means including Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. (Some of these Arab countries have treated the Palestinians like unwanted stepchildren.)
From a political standpoint, this is a huge time bomb. If Barack Obama spends a lot of political capital early in his presidency on trying to fix the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and can't find a solution, that will hurt some of his domestic agenda. On the other hand, we have seen what eight years of neglect does. On the surface, this seems to be a lose-lose proposition. But, as an optimist, I think that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will need to (and, with luck, will be able to) balance this with the many other crises around the world. We do need to defeat Al Qaeda. We do need to do better in Afghanistan and make it a functioning nation. We also need to help Pakistan, not only with its relationship to India, but also with its relationship to Afghanistan. We need to get out of Iraq and develop a presence in Africa. We need to bolster Africa's attempt to control some of its violence within its own continent (the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Darfur for come to mind). As a nation, we cannot ignore the problems of South and Central America. In addition, the growing challenges of Asia, which include the vulnerability of some Asian countries to Al Qaeda, may be as daunting as any challenge that I've yet mentioned. I have to make a special mention of North Korea, of course, since it was an original member of the Axis of Evil.
If history shows us anything, it is two definitive paths which have not yet led to the settlement of this long conflict. The first path was taken by President Clinton, which was to wait to the end of his presidency then throw his whole weight behind the peace process. He, like Bush, was a lame duck and, because of that, could not get an agreement. Then there is President Bush's way... ignore the problem and hope it will go away, which doesn't work either. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton must choose a different path. It is time for Hillary Clinton to be great.