WASHINGTON - On Thursday, his second full day in office, Pres. Barack Obama took some bold steps that could have wide and positive repercussions in the Middle East.
He signed executive orders forbidding torture by any U.S. government agent and mandating the speedy closure of the much-reviled U.S. detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
And he traveled to the State Department to announce - alongside newly confirmed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - the appointments of former Sen. George Mitchell as special envoy for Middle East peace, and of former ambassador Richard Holbrooke as special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The fact that the new president went to visit the State Department so early in his term sent a powerful signal that he would be placing a new emphasis on diplomacy rather than focusing heavily on military instruments of power, as his predecessor had done. True, Obama had received briefings from Central Command Gen. David Petraeus and other military commanders on Jan. 21. But those admirals and generals had to go visit him in the White House. For the diplomats, Obama traveled to their place of work, instead.
Describing his executive orders at the State Department, Obama said they "should send an unmistakable signal that... we, the people, will uphold our fundamental values as vigilantly as we protect our security."
Describing the context of Mitchell's appointment as Mideast envoy, he said, "It will be the policy of my administration to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its Arab neighbours."
This marks a huge contrast with the approach of George W. Bush who, on coming into office in 2001, determined he would put the Palestinian issue onto a back-burner since it was not yet "ripe" for resolution.
Seven years into his eight-year presidency, Bush did finally convene the Annapolis peace conference in November 2007, declaring that he aimed to win agreement from Israeli and Palestinian negotiators on the terms of a final peace by the end of 2008. But that effort failed. Instead of seeing the conclusion of a peace agreement, the end of 2008 saw Israel's launching of a ferocious and deadly war on Gaza, instead.
The Israeli government initiated that assault in the context of the mounting campaign for the country's Feb. 10 general election. (The Israeli government said the war was "in response to" rocket attacks from Gaza.)
During 22 days of attacks by air, ground and sea, Israel's high-tech, U.S.-supplied military killed more than 1,300 Gazans, hundreds of them women and children. It wounded thousands more, and destroyed thousands of homes along with schools, mosques, the legislature, government buildings, and an entire university. Thirteen Israelis died during the war, three of them civilians.
On Jan. 18, just two days before Obama's inauguration, the Israeli government announced a unilateral ceasefire. Hamas and its allies followed suit. The new president was thus presented with a fragile, un-negotiated ceasefire that could collapse at any moment - and with a climate of opinion throughout much of the Arab and low-income world that was deeply critical both of both Israel's paroxysm of destructive violence and of the tacit support that George Bush's Washington had given it.
Pres. Obama, once inaugurated, moved swiftly to try to defuse that criticism. His inaugural address itself contained several phrases crafted to reach out constructively to the Muslim world. His announcement of Mitchell as Middle East peace envoy seemed constructive, too.
Shelley Deane, a professor at Bowdoin College in Mitchell's home state of Maine, said her ongoing research into the role he had played in the Northern Ireland peace talks and in heading the U.S.'s 2001 investigation into the causes of the Second Palestinian Intifada gave her hope he could be a positive and even-handed force in his latest mission.
Dennis Ross, the strongly pro-Israeli figure who dominated the failed peace-brokering efforts of the eight years of Bill Clinton's presidency and who was earlier described (by his own think-tank) as a powerful coordinator of Middle East policy in Hillary Clinton's State Department, was reportedly not even present at Thursday's State Department event.
One significant remaining question is whether Mitchell will report only through Clinton, or also report directly to Pres. Obama. It was Clinton who announced his appointment Thursday - but she did so by saying that "the president and I" had jointly asked him to take the job.
And when Obama spoke, after Clinton, he provided much more detail than Clinton about the scope and aims of Mitchell's mission, indicating that the reins of power would most likely remain in the White House rather than the State Department.
Josh Ruebner, national advocacy director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, said he was encouraged by what Obama said about Mitchell's mission, especially the stress Obama laid on the need for Gaza's border crossings to be open for aid and commerce in the context of a more lasting Gaza-Israel ceasefire.
The task that lies ahead of Mitchell, Clinton, and Obama is substantial. As Israelis head toward their Feb. 10 election, the rightwing Likud Party and its allies seem strong. (The decision of the Olmert-led government to launch the assault on Gaza seemed to have further strengthened Likud. Though Defence Minister Ehud Barak's Labour Party picked up some popularity, it did so at the expense of Olmert's Kadima Party, increasing the lead that Likud enjoyed over second-place contender Kadima.)
Meanwhile, among Palestinians, Hamas has gained considerable popularity at the expense of the U.S.-backed Fatah movement led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose formal term of office anyway expired on Jan. 9. Thus, Washington could no longer hope that simply continuing the talks that Olmert and Abbas have conducted since (and before) Annapolis would bring any decisive conclusion.
On the positive side of the diplomatic ledger, both Fateh and Hamas have expressed strong interest in returning to something like the "national unity government" arrangement they maintained between February and June 2007. And the Gaza crisis has moved the need for robust peacemaking to the very top of the agenda, not just in Washington but also worldwide.
Meanwhile, the challenges of reconstruction in the very densely populated Gaza Strip remain dire. The severe damage caused to infrastructure, housing, and schools needs to be repaired, and the lack of any negotiated agreement attendant to the ceasefire means there is no formula for how this can be achieved - especially since Israel continues to control all access into and out of the Strip.
Some analysts have argued that, given the failure of past reconstruction efforts, this time the reconstruction of Gaza needs to be linked closely to resolution of the whole broader Israel-Palestine conflict.