The short-term outlook has a certain clarity. Hamas militants are firing rockets into Israel. There's no dealing with Gaza's government, since its leaders are Hamas militants. Retaliating with airstrikes doesn't finish the job and leads to horrible errors. So, let the tanks roll.
But let's say an invasion crushes Hamas, a feasible outcome if the Israeli army were let loose. Then what? Either the Israelis have to reoccupy Gaza, with all the burdens and dangers that entails — the cost of cleaning up and providing services, the constant danger of gunfire and worse from local rebels (whose ranks will now include the fathers, brothers and cousins of those killed), and the everyday demoralization afflicting the oppressed and the oppressors. Or the Israelis move in, then get out, leaving a hell hole fertile for plowing by militias, including Islamic State-style Islamists, far more dangerous than Hamas.
Either way, what's the point? Until this conflict with Gaza, Israel had been enjoying a level of security it hadn't seen in many years. Terrorist attacks from the West Bank are all but nonexistent. Its enemies to the north — Syria, Hezbollah and a gaggle of Islamist terrorist movements — are embroiled in their own wars with one another. Egypt is once again in the firm grip of a military government committed to putting down the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies (including Hamas). Iran has — at least for now — frozen its nuclear program, as a result of negotiations led by the Obama administration. And speaking of the beleaguered President Barack Obama, the Iron Dome antimissile shield, whose production he greatly accelerated, has shot down the few dozen — out of several hundred — Hamas rockets that would have exploded in Israeli cities.
Instead of capitalizing on Israel's unusually strong strategic position, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu risks squandering it — destroying what little support he has in the West and making it hard for Arab governments that share his interests (Egypt, Jordan, and, even now, the Palestinian Authority) to sustain their tacit alliances.
Two broad trends over the past decade have helped sire this awful state. First, as the veteran Middle East reporter Ethan Bronner noted in the New York Times' Sunday Review section, there was a time, 20 to 30 years ago, when Israelis and Palestinians shared the same space. They rode the same buses, walked the same streets; Palestinians learned Hebrew, worked for Israeli companies; Israelis took their cars to be fixed by Palestinian mechanics. The sharing was hardly equal; it had a colonial bent. But they knew, and in some cases trusted each other; they were business partners, even friends. That is no longer the case. A generation has grown up with little or no contact. Dehumanization has set in; violence is easier to abide.
Second, when George W. Bush became president, he initiated a hands-off policy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No longer would the American president invest time and effort into prolonged, usually fruitless peace talks. No longer would an American envoy be phoned on a Sunday afternoon to settle a dispute at some checkpoint between a Palestinian motorist and an Israeli guard. The problem was, that was how matches were put out during the presidencies of Bush's father and Bill Clinton. With the firemen gone, the flames spread.
Hamas is hardly blameless in this conflict, and the Israelis can't be blamed for doing everything they can to stop a terrorist regime on their doorstep from firing rockets into their territory.
But it's interesting that some of the most senior former Israeli intelligence officials have urged Israeli leaders to choose peace talks over war. In the stunning 2013 documentary The Gatekeepers, six former commanders of Shin Bet, Israel's secret service, speak on camera, on the record, making just such a plea. Some Israeli critics of The Gatekeepers scoffed that none of these ex-commanders expressed such a view when they were arresting and killing militants with gusto. That's probably true. The everyday pressure of fighting, policing and — in the Cabinet's case — governing often rivets one's eyes to short-term fixes and away from long-term consequences or strategic calculations.
The Israeli leaders need an outsider to broaden their view, and that outsider can only be the United States. Exhausted as Secretary of State John Kerry must be in his travels, and belabored as Obama must feel in his entire relationship with Netanyahu, both need to immerse themselves in this crisis, work with Egypt to impose or cajole a cease-fire, then get Israel to realize its momentary strategic advantage and the need to seize the moment before it passes.
That has to involve renewed negotiations for a two-state solution (even if the talks go nowhere), coupled with a freeze on settlements (in part to show good faith, in part because it's the right thing to do), and a lavish program of aid and investment in the West Bank (to make it a showcase for Gazans seeking an alternative to their rulers who want only war).
It's a large package, but the alternative is to watch Israel roll its tanks all the way into Gaza — and to lose a lot more than it might gain.
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