(CNN) - The Gaza crisis is an alarm bell and flashing light for incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - buckle up, it's going to be a bumpy ride.
As she prepares to become the top U.S. diplomat and the symbol for U.S. policy around the globe, Clinton inherits from the Bush administration a dangerous and unpredictable world in which the violence in Gaza and southern Israel is just one reminder.
Outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is winding down her diplomatic responsibilities and has briefed both Clinton and President-elect Barack Obama about what is playing out in the Middle East. Those talks are private and Team Obama is scrupulously sticking to its "only one president at a time" mantra when it comes to international policy.
But the ground keeps shifting. And events in and around Gaza will force the new secretary of state to deal with questions about the Mideast sooner than she and her advisers might have hoped.
"We'll have to see what the landscape is like by January 20," said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "We'll have to see what this administration is inheriting."
Makovsky is co-author of a book coming out later this year, "Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction in the Middle East."
"There's going to be a desire to think the new (Obama) administration is better," he said in a telephone interview with CNN. "An administration that prioritizes the Arab-Israeli conflict will be seen as a breath of fresh air."
The two-plus weeks to inauguration day on January 20 could hold new Mideast surprises. Even if a ceasefire is hammered out by then, it will still be fresh and untested, and anger over the latest violence will be raw.
"It's probable this will be a long-festering crisis," said James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation, where he is Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs.
And the new secretary of state will face the same dilemma as the current one.
"I don't think Hamas will change its ways or its policy of terrorism," Phillips said. "They should realize the U.S. power to affect the outcome is limited as long as Hamas is determined to continue its policy of confrontation."
The Bush administration treaded water on the Mideast for nearly seven years, and then shifted into high diplomatic gear with the Annapolis peace conference in November 2007. That culminated with pledges from the U.S., Israel and the Palestinian authority that a final agreement would be reached before Bush left the presidency.
That optimism faded during 2008, due to what author and former Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller labels "weak leaders combined with tough issues."
And crises such as Gaza tend to distract from other issues.
Edward Djerejian, long-time diplomat and director of the Baker Institute at Rice University, points out that just jumping from one crisis to another can distract decision-makers and muddle U.S. policy.
He says Clinton and the Obama team must look at how to resolve crises not just in the Middle East but across the Muslim world.
"What I mean by that is going from crisis management to crisis resolution - not just putting out fires that erupt all the time in the Middle East, but really making an effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the Israeli-Syrian peace treaty (and) the Israeli-Lebanese peace treaty," Djerejian said in a CNN interview.
Clinton herself is seen as staunchly pro-Israel.
As the junior U.S. senator from New York, she represents one of the largest Jewish constituencies in the world. She told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last year that she and Obama are good friends to Israel.
"I know that Senator Obama shares my view that the next president must be ready to say to the world, 'America's position is unchanging, our resolve unyielding, our stance non-negotiable. The United States stands with Israel now and forever,'" Clinton said.
When she takes over at the State Department, Clinton also must grapple with the perception in the Muslim world that the United States gave Israel a green-light to attack Hamas in Gaza by repeatedly placing blame on Hamas for rocket attacks on southern Israel.
The Israeli military action has had the unintended consequence of pushing some moderate Arab governments back in the pro-Hamas camp.
Hisham Melhem, prominent Lebanese journalist and correspondent in Washington for Al-Arabiya television, says the Israeli attacks on Gaza - which he labels "the Israeli rampage" - have rattled moderate Arab governments that might dislike both Hamas and Israel.
"The problem is the Arab moderates and their policies; and Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank - part of their weakness - is that their ally, the United States, is essentially supporting the Israeli onslaught on Gaza," Melhem said in a CNN interview.
"So what you have is an Arab estrangement from Hamas, particularly the Egyptian, Saudi, Jordanian (governments) at the same time they are outraged at the Israeli attack and the high toll in civilian casualties."
And Melhem says the new U.S. administration must look at how the Israeli war against the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 actually ended up strengthening Israel's foes.
"We will probably end up in a way similar to '06, in the sense Hamas will be emboldened and Israeli will be criticized by the international community and it will not solve the problem of Hamas," Melhem said.
"I don't think the Israelis have learned the lesson of '06, and maybe the Bush administration did not learn also the lessons (from) '06 when they initially gave that kind of support to the Israelis."
And the next secretary of state must remember, says Melhem, that as U.S. clout in the whole region has declined, Iran is standing taller.
"The U.S. cannot be oblivious to Iran's expanding influence, and what that is doing to its friends and to its own stature and its own interests in the region. By supporting Israel in an unqualified way (the U.S. is) emboldening not only Iran but Iran's supporters and friends in the Arab world like Hezbollah and Hamas," Melhem said.
Clinton has personal, political experience in just how easy it is to get burned by the complexities of Mideast policy.
She stepped too far in front of U.S. policy in 1998 when she talked about how creating a Palestinian state was important for peace in the Middle East. She was first lady then, and her own husband's administration had to walk that back.
The so-called "two-state solution" is now cemented in U.S. policy by Bush and others.
In another incident, in 1999 Mrs. Clinton almost de-railed her own bid to become a U.S. senator when she kept quiet as Suha Arafat, the wife of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, launched a verbal attack on Israel, accusing it of using poison gas against Palestinians and poisoning the water supply.
Clinton later managed to squelch the controversy and save her own political career by calling the charges "excessive rhetoric."
On the positive side, current Secretary of State Rice and Bush did launch the latest rounds of talks between the U.S. and the Palestinians. And Israel has been reaching out separately to other neighbors, including Syria.
"A sleeper issue of 2009 is to what extent the United States reaches out to explore prospects for a breakthrough between Syria and Israel," said
Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
So when the Gaza file officially thuds down on her State Department desk following expected Senate approval of her nomination, Clinton will confront many of the same issues that have stymied her predecessors, and ones they and she couldn't predict. Among her first decisions will be whether to jet off to the region herself, something the New York Times and others have urged on Rice in her final days.
"Going to the region would not substantially advance the chances for peace as long as Hamas continues to be wedded to its terrorism policies," warns Phillips of the Heritage Foundation.
"What is needed is for Western and Middle Eastern countries to put more pressure on Hamas to observe the cease-fire."