With Israel again bombarding Gaza and gathering troops for another potentially devastating incursion into the Hamas-controlled Palestinian enclave, it is tempting to think that nothing really changes in the Middle East, and especially in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But to think that would be a mistake—especially for friends of Israel.
It is not clear what precipitated this latest confrontation. There is no question that rocket attacks from Gaza increased dramatically in recent months, or that some kind of Israeli response was inevitable. Still, the rockets, though frightening, were (and remain) largely ineffectual, and there had been no recent Israeli fatalities. That changed after Israel’s targeted assassination of Ahmed Jabari, the military commander of Hamas. In response, Hamas fired a barrage of rockets, one of which killed three Israelis. Since then, both sides have launched hundreds of strikes. A new Israeli antimissile defense system has proved remarkably effective, while the death toll for Palestinians is mounting steadily.
Knowledgeable observers think neither Hamas nor Israel wants to reenact the carnage of Operation Cast Lead four years ago. That wrenching assault resulted in the deaths of nearly 1,400 Palestinians, most of them civilians. Only thirteen Israelis were killed. If Hamas wants to avoid repeating such a calamity, why would it provoke Israel in this manner? One theory is that a show of military bravado would enhance its status across the new political landscape of the Arab world, especially in comparison with its more moderate Palestinian rival, Fatah. A demonstration of robust military capability—some rockets provided by Iran can now reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem—might also reinvigorate support among Gaza’s beleaguered and disgruntled population. Hamas also counts on the fact that Israel has no interest in re-occupying Gaza with its 1.6 million Palestinians. Nor is it in Israel’s interest to repeat its brutal three-week 2008–09 siege. Operation Cast Lead was seen by many in the international community as disproportionate if not immoral—some claim Israel committed war crimes—and contributed significantly to the growing isolation of the Jewish state.
Much has changed since then. In 2008 Hamas had few friends in the Arab world. The “Arab Spring,” and especially the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, has changed that dynamic. Under the dictatorial Hosni Mubarak, Egypt worked closely with Israel to limit the smuggling of armaments into Gaza. With Mubarak’s overthrow, the Sinai and the border between Egypt and Gaza have become ungovernable, and smuggling has become commonplace—another reason Israel felt compelled to act. Egypt’s recently elected Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, reflecting popular Egyptian sentiment, has expressed solidarity with Hamas and the people of Gaza. He has criticized Israel’s aerial offensive and warned against another ground invasion. An escalation of violence by Israel would put Morsi in a difficult position—perhaps even push him to reconsider Egypt’s commitment to the peace treaty between the two nations. Turkey, once a reliable friend of Israel, has also sided with Hamas.
If there is to be a diplomatic solution to the crisis, it may come thanks to the intervention of Egypt and Turkey, once peripheral players in the Palestinian conflict. In fact, the United States has been pressing Morsi and Turkey to take the lead in arranging a truce. Many of Israel’s friends, especially the United States, dread the prospect of another gruesome assault on densely populated Gaza. Such a military action would unavoidably be seen as a war against civilians. Remarks of high-ranking Israeli officials about the need to “punish” the Palestinians heighten such fears. Responding with massive retaliatory force to Hamas’s deliberate provocations only jeopardizes Israel’s own moral standing.
No one disputes that the threats to Israel are real or that turmoil in the region—especially the Syrian civil war and Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear-weapons capability—leave little room for error on Israel’s part. But as the shifting allegiances of Israel’s neighbors indicate, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains the key to the country’s security—and indeed to the whole region’s. Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has never proposed a plausible resolution of the conflict. In fact, at every opportunity Netanyahu has sabotaged progress toward a two-state solution. At this very moment, Jewish settlements are being expanded on the West Bank.
For better or for worse, the U.S.-Israeli alliance is not going to change. No American president has much political room to maneuver when it comes to Israel’s military actions. But the Arab world is changing, and both the United States and Israel will soon have to find new ways of dealing with a region where U.S. influence is diminishing and Israel’s options are narrowing. A negotiated ceasefire in Gaza would be a good first step toward recognizing that new reality.
November 19, 2012