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.