Is there any way out of this trap? The maneuvering around the ceasefire has, of course, created some tantalizing realignments. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood government now has the capacity to serve as an interlocutor between Hamas and the West, as it did not before. President Barack Obama has established a relationship of trust with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsy. Obama has also earned credibility with the Israeli public and with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Everybody is good with everybody else -- except, of course, Israel and Hamas. Obama can probably use the good will he has earned to prevent Israel from over-reacting to the latest provocation from Gaza, and Morsy may be able to similarly keep Hamas in line. But even assuming such good fortune offers no hope for a long-term solution.
And this raises a fundamental question for U.S. policy: Should Obama try to cash in his credibility by pressing Israel to re-start negotiations with the Palestinians -- not with Hamas, of course, but with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority? Even before the war, Obama's supporters hoped that he would put Middle East peace on his to-do list for the second term. Isn't the case all the stronger now? Of course the president would have to wait until after Israel's elections, now scheduled for next January, but that still leaves plenty of time.
The problem is that the Israelis are going to re-elect Benjamin Netanyahu. Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu's predecessor, has talked about running as a pro-peace candidate, but the Israeli public is not interested. A recent poll found that 63 percent of Israelis had no wish to see the former prime minister make a comeback. Other candidates who share Olmert's view, like former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, have gained no more traction. Polls show that Israelis strongly favor a two-state solution; they just don't believe it's possible anytime soon.
Worse still, the sudden centrality of Hamas has weakened an already weak President Abbas. And Israel has made Abbas look weaker still by batting away his occasional olive branch. When the Palestinian leader risked the wrath of his own followers by suggesting several weeks ago that he would not insist on the right of Palestinians to return to their homeland in Israel, Israeli president Shimon Peres embraced his "brave and important public declaration," but Netanyahu waved off the remarks as unimportant.
The prudent course for Obama would thus be to focus on keeping the peace in Gaza and perhaps building up Palestinian institutions in the West Bank, and put off peace-making until a more propitious moment -- presumably when Obama is no longer President (or Netanyahu is no longer prime minister). But what would that mean? The latest war, or almost-war, in Gaza shows just how profoundly unstable the stats quo is. It's obvious that Palestinians in the West Bank will not continue to silently abide their occupied status, even with better police and hospitals. Israel will become more lonely, more embattled, more dependent on the U.S. Life inside the Iron Dome will become ever more precarious. I can't see how a peace initiative could succeed right now. But the consequences of not trying seem much worse than the consequences of trying and failing.