Still Think Middle East Peace Doesn't Matter?

Gaza's radiating instability proves once again that Palestine is at the center of the region's problems.

Everyone knew it was coming. Once the giddy days of the Arab uprising had passed, it was the subject of discussion at almost every roundtable, panel discussion, and bull session among Middle East analysts: What about Gaza?

How would Arab governments, newly responsive to their people, handle a replay of Israel's Operation Cast Lead, the bloody offensive in Gaza that commenced almost exactly four years ago? At the time, U.S. President George W. Bush's administration and President-elect Barack Obama's team could rely on figures like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II to help contain the conflict and ensure that the status quo remained, even after the Israel Defense Forces withdrew their tanks and the rockets stopped flying.

That was another era. The dynamics of the Israel-Hamas conflict that led to the current fighting are similar to those of 2008, but nothing else is. With citizens throughout the region demanding a reversal of the policies of the past, observers of the region implicitly understood that the Arab world's leaders -- both old and new -- would face great pressure to demonstrate that they are responsive to public opinion and hold Israel and the United States "accountable" for their actions.

At those bull sessions -- invariably called, "The Middle East Undergoing Change: Strategic Implications" or something equally snooze-inducing -- the response to a new Gaza war was often shrugs, sighs, and raised eyebrows. The body language meant: "Let's hope nothing happens so that we don't have to think about it." So despite the endless questions about what would happen, nobody succeeded in coming up with any answers. Yet when Israel assassinated Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jabari -- the keeper of the uneasy Israel-Hamas cease-fire over the last four years -- last week, suddenly the conflict came roaring back to the forefront of Washington's collective consciousness.

This is, indeed, a dangerous moment -- but the sky hasn't fallen yet. In Egypt, the new leadership has engaged in full-throated rhetorical support for Hamas, but at the same time has played a central role in diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the current fighting. This carries domestic political risks should diplomacy fail, but so far President Mohamed Morsy and his handpicked spy chief, Mohamed Shehata, have burnished their credentials as mediators. Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil's Nov. 16 visit to Gaza was particularly instructive: Qandil arrived in the strip to express solidarity with the Palestinians, but his visit was also aimed at providing a lull in the fighting to open an opportunity for negotiations.

The conflict has also not yet wreaked havoc on Israel's other borders. Hezbollah has not opened a second front. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's dubious effort to deflect attention from his murderous campaign against his own people fell on deaf ears throughout the region. Jordan's large demonstration last week over fuel price hikes, which included groundbreaking calls for King Abdullah II to step down, has not morphed into protests against Israel's military operations in Gaza.

The fact that cooler heads seem to have prevailed is a relief for those fearing an escalation of wider regional violence. Yet, there is no denying that the Arab uprisings have altered the dynamics of the Israel-Hamas relationship. The visits of Arab foreign ministers, Egypt's prime minister, and the Arab League secretary-general, as well as even reports that the Moroccans are planning on setting up a field hospital in Gaza, may all be symbolic, but this is important symbolism. For the first time since Israel came to control the Gaza Strip in June 1967 -- and no doubt a good deal of time before then, when Egypt was in control of the territory -- Gazans are no longer alone. Still, as Egyptian officials try to hammer out a truce, the operative word is "yet" -- as in, "the sky has not fallen ... yet."

What if diplomacy fails? What if, while 90 percent of a deal is worked out, Hamas's rocketeers actually hit something of tangible value inside Israel and kill a lot of people? What if Israel's not-so-surgical strikes kill 50, 60, or 100 people in an instant, instead of the three, four, or five victims that they have so far? What if the Israelis launch a ground invasion of Gaza? That's the nightmare scenario, but it doesn't seem so far-fetched in light of the last six days of violence.

The current hostilities between the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas, combined with the political changes across the region, belie the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a central strategic concern of the United States. Belittling the conflict's importance had been the refuge of observers bereft of ideas on how to forge a settlement in the Middle East, and it was often invoked in Washington to deride peace-process dead-enders -- analysts who saw an opportunity to "restart negotiations" where others saw nothing but hopelessness.

Let's not kid ourselves -- the prospects for a peace agreement look as dismal as ever. It is extraordinarily unlikely that there is an opportunity for talks now after militants in Gaza threatened Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with rocket fire. For the minority of Israelis who have not already done so, huddling in safe rooms and bomb shelters in Rishon LeZion, Ashkelon, and Herzliya will convince them that an Israeli withdrawal from territory in the West Bank, which peace would require, is foolish.

But it is impossible to ignore the inconvenient fact that this conflict lies at the heart of U.S. interests in the Middle East. If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decides he has no choice but to send in ground forces, Washington will likely express its support for Israel's right to self-defense -- and Egypt's president will not be able to continue on his current constructive path. That may be a principled and politically sound position for the Obama administration to take, but it would not look that way from Cairo. This would place Morsy -- a lifelong enemy of Zionism -- in the position of having to take a tougher stand, which could ultimately lead to the unraveling of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

That should be enough for U.S. policymakers to sit up and take notice. The treaty has been a cornerstone of the U.S. position in the Middle East for the last 33 years -- and by calling it into question, Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense has placed U.S. interests are at stake in Gaza.

Even if the Egyptians manage to avoid a bloodier conflict this time around, the result in Gaza will only be further deadlock. An updated version of the cease-fire that was shattered last week buys a few years of relative quiet, but it will not alter the dynamics of the Israel-Hamas relationship. In time, the Palestinians will rearm, someone will take a shot at someone, and the Israelis will unleash a fury in the service of bitachon (security) and re-establishing their eroding deterrent. This short-term stability -- punctuated by ferocious but ultimately containable fighting -- may have been an acceptable outcome when Mubarak was pharaoh, but it is unsustainable in a world where Arabs have seemingly perfected the impact of "people power."

It is true that Egyptians, Libyans, Tunisians, and others in the Middle East have myriad domestic, political, and economic problems to which they must attend, so much so that what happens in Gaza is (rhetoric aside) actually a low priority. Yet Palestine is a domestic political issue, especially in a country like Egypt where the uprising was in large part about restoring national dignity.

What does this all mean for the United States? For starters, it means Washington lacks a reliable ally who can balance the interests of Israelis and Palestinians, while also accommodating U.S. interests. This is why Mubarak was central to Washington and Jerusalem. Morsy will never play that role; Jordan's king has his own problems; the Israelis don't trust the Turks; Qatar has only cash to offer; and the Saudis are too circumspect to step into the breach.

The easy answer for observers is that the United States should recalibrate its approach to the conflict. In other words, it should move away from unreserved support for Israel in favor of a policy that directly pressures its ally to come to a peace agreement with the Palestinians. That sounds eminently reasonable, but there is an air of unreality to this recommendation. Analysts might point to President Ronald Reagan's delay of F-16s to Israel in 1981 over the devastating bombing of Beirut as proof that at least a modulation of U.S. policy is possible, but three decades later the narrative is dramatically different. Regardless of the asymmetry in casualty count and cries of disproportionality among Israel's critics, the U.S. domestic politics of the conflict in Gaza will always line up in Israel's favor.

There are also other strategic considerations -- such as the confrontation over Iran's nuclear program. In the iterated game that is foreign affairs, the United States could never hope to restrain Israel from a unilateral strike on Tehran's uranium-enrichment facilities if Washington did not support Jerusalem at a moment when millions of Israelis are under the direct threat of rocket attack.

Where does all this leave us? In a novel and uncomfortable situation where the United States must take the disposition of the Palestinian people into great account if it hopes to secure its interests in the Middle East. Even as this becomes abundantly clear, what to do about it remains elusive.

The United States is caught between a rock and a hard place: If it alters its approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, it threatens to disrupt U.S.-Israel relations, which are important politically and strategically. Supporting Israel to the hilt, however, is likely to damage America's position in a greatly changed Arab world. Observers have warned before that the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem could hurt the United States. It never turned out to be true, but now it actually seems possible. The new Middle East, indeed.

-/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Winning the Stalemate

In Gaza, both sides are benefitting from the violence.

For 25 years Israel and Hamas have fought, and for 25 years neither has prevailed. Hamas has scored many victories: it began as a small terrorist organization in 1987 and steadily grew in size and importance. In 2006, it won elections in Gaza and seized power there in 2007, becoming the Strip's de facto government and emerging as an equal to Fatah, which dominates the West Bank. Israel, however, has prevented Hamas from gaining further ground in the West Bank while, over time, forcing Hamas to realize, in practice if not in rhetoric, that the Jewish state is here to stay.

The problem, then, with trying to end the fighting and prevent another recurrence is that both sides believe that using force advances their interests. Now, they each want more, and both face domestic pressure to demand more.

Rocket attacks from Gaza have increased in 2012, making life miserable for Israelis near the Strip. The goal of Israel's most recent campaign, "Pillar of Defense," is to force Hamas to end its own rocket attacks and to compel other Palestinian groups to do so as well. As Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, declared, "Hamas is responsible for the rocket fire and all other attempts to harm our soldiers and civilians, even when other groups participate." Israel is demanding what all governments demand: that its own people be safe.

Hamas' goal is less straightforward but grander. On the one hand, it seeks to govern Gaza, both because it cares about the welfare of Gazans and because it wants to enhance its status among Palestinians outside Gaza. In so doing, it hopes to out-govern and thus outstrip Fatah, its longstanding and more moderate rival, and become the voice of all the Palestinian people. Hamas also seeks international recognition, and recent visits from senior leaders of Qatar, Tunisia, Turkey, and Egypt are important milestones for the group.

Hamas, however, also gains credibility by being what it calls a "resistance" organization -- one that has used suicide bombings, rocket attacks, and other forms of terrorism and violence against Israel. Hamas' long struggle with Israel has won it other foreign backers, most notably Iran, and gained it admiration from Palestinians who want revenge on Israel or who believe Israel will only make concessions if forced to do so. In addition, Hamas faces rivals in Gaza -- groups like Palestine Islamic Jihad and Salafi-jihadist groups with a radical ideology more akin to al Qaeda's -- that want to continue fighting Israel and would accuse Hamas of collaborating if it abandons resistance.

When Israel entered Gaza in its 2008-2009 "Cast Lead" operation, which killed over 1,000 Palestinians and destroyed much of Gaza's infrastructure, it forced Hamas to confront the contradictions inherent in these goals: Hamas could not deliver services and otherwise govern well while it used violence against Israel. Since then, Hamas has tried to limit its own involvement in violence to avoid Israeli retaliation and gain international support. At the same time Hamas, has kept its toe (and sometimes more) in the water to maintain its resistance credibility. Even more importantly, from an Israeli point of view, Hamas has tolerated -- sometimes more, sometimes less -- attacks by other groups on Israel in order to avoid charges of collaboration. But as often as not, Hamas stopped attacks from other groups. As Aluf Benn, one of Israel's leading security analysts, declared, "Ahmed Jabari" -- the Hamas commander Israel killed last week -- "was a subcontractor, in charge of maintaining Israel's security in Gaza." The trickle of rocket attacks, however, grew stronger as the memory of Cast Lead grew hazier, and what was seen as a nuisance became a threat.

With Pillar of Defense, Israel seeks to force Hamas to again police Gaza on its behalf and restore its deterrence while reassuring its own citizens so Hamas cannot intimidate them. In other words, Israel is playing both offense and defense.

Israel's strategy has five components. Striking Jabari was meant to frighten Hamas' military leaders -- both with death and with the prospect that their organization could disintegrate under a continuous loss of senior leaders. Second, Israel is actually trying to degrade Hamas' organizational capacity -- and thereby render it incapable of protecting or providing for Gazans -- by hitting other leadership targets, police facilities, and elements of Hamas' military and political infrastructure. As the conflict has worn on, Israel has gone from strictly military sites to political and media ones, demonstrating to Hamas that Israel can increase the pressure. Third, Israel has destroyed many of the long-range rockets that enabled Hamas to target Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. (At the same time, it has accepted that small towns near the Gaza border and large cities like Ashdod and Beersheva will be in range of Hamas' shorter-range rockets, which have proven harder to destroy.) Fourth, Israel is relying on the "Iron Dome" missile defense system to shoot down incoming rockets (the government claims a 90 percent effectiveness rate) and to serve as a visible symbol that the government is protecting its people. Finally, Israel has called up reserves and threatened to send ground troops to Gaza, signaling to Hamas that it can dramatically escalate the conflict.

Israeli leaders often cite the struggle against Hezbollah as a model. The 2006 war went poorly for Israel's military, and the continuance of rocket attacks throughout the conflict led many observers at the time to declare it a political win for Hezbollah. But Hezbollah seemed deterred in the war's aftermath. It has kept the peace along Israel's border, and the last six years in the north have been quiet and rocket-free.

In a different way, Hamas' strategy is modeled after Hezbollah's approach during its 2006 war with Israel. Hamas cannot beat Israel, but it hopes to prove that it can outlast it. If Hamas can keep firing rockets, it can demonstrate to its own people that though it is bloodied, it is also unbowed. Moreover, by striking not only areas near Gaza but also firing on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Hamas is trying to bring the war home to all Israelis -- and score points with Palestinians at home with television images of Israelis running for cover. Ghazi Hamad, Hamas' deputy foreign minister, told CNN that Hamas wants to make it clear to Israel that it cannot "do everything" it wants in Gaza. "We send a message to them that Gaza is not an easy bone. ... You can't eat Gaza in one minute. If you do something, we will react." Hamas also hopes that continued rocket attacks will wear down the Israeli people, while international pressure will force Israel to give up the fight. Finally, Hamas feels confident -- or at least more confident -- that it has Egypt's backing, which it lacked when Hosni Mubarak was in power.

For now, both sides think they can win. Gaza is being hit far harder than Israel, but Hamas has far more tolerance for the casualties of its own people and fighters than does Israel. In fact, its military side is probably braying for revenge for Jabari's killing, and giving in too early would be risky for Hamas' political leaders, who worry that some of its military wing might join rival groups if they are seen as kowtowing to Israel. For Israel, on the other hand, calling for a ceasefire as rockets fall make it hard to claim that it restored deterrence and is bending Hamas to its awl. The fighting not only may continue for a while, but it could even expand as Israel in particular feels the need to ratchet up pressure.

Israelis believe that, even if Hamas agrees to a ceasefire now, they will probably have to hit Gaza hard again in future years to keep Hamas deterred. Cast Lead in their view worked -- but if Hamas is not regularly reminded of Israel's military superiority, Israel's deterrence will decline. However, in addition to the cost in lives and property, continued strikes will make Israel an even greater pariah and hinder any long-term hope for peace. Instead, Israel's coercion needs to be balanced with real incentives. For Hamas to again act as Israel's subcontractor, it needs to be able to score political wins among Palestinians by governing Gaza. It must have a chance to restore economic and social normalcy to the Strip. This achievement can then be held at risk if it uses violence -- or if it allows other groups to do so. Rather than be both a government and a resistance movement, Hamas must be forced to choose, with real rewards if it goes along a path toward peace and harsh punishment, internationally supported, if it refuses to reject violence.

To break the stalemate and end the fighting, both sides have to believe they will gain more from peace than from violence. For Israel this means a permanent end to rocket attacks from Gaza, including those fired by other groups. For Hamas it means that it must gain more of an ability to govern. Without such gains, any ceasefire is unlikely to hold.