As I write, the ceasefire in Gaza has held for going on two days. Every day is likely to bring a new provocation which will test the willingness of both sides to keep their arms sheathed; the most recent is the killing of a Gazan protestor by Israeli soldiers at a border crossing. For the moment, though, we can be thankful that Israel's security cabinet agreed, by what appears to be a hairsbreadth, to accept the ceasefire terms fashioned in Cairo and pressed on them very hard by President Barack Obama.
Usually the act of contemplating the might-have-been requires a leap of speculation -- but not in this case. Part of the horror of watching the drama of the last week was the sense of an almost mechanical, and thus helpless, re-playing of past events. As in Operation Cast Lead in 2009, Israel would follow up an extensive air assault with a ground operation designed to destroy Hamas's fighting capacity as well as the infrastructure of the state and the economy. Many innocent civilians would die, though of course the definition of "innocent" and "civilian" would be hotly disputed. Israel would be condemned for wanton destruction, and further isolated in world opinion. The United States would stand by its ally, and earn the further hatred of Arab peoples.
Actually it could have been worse this time. In 2009, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) refused to allow journalists access to Gaza until after the fighting ended. The consequence was that when investigators for the so-called Goldstone Report sought to investigate claims that Israel had committed war crimes, they had to depend on accounts from the Palestinian victims, which Israel and its supporters naturally viewed as unreliable. This time, however, the IDF allowed journalists to cover the battlefield. I'm not sure why; maybe they thought they could win the propaganda war through Twitter. It's safe to say that they didn't succeed. The appalling imagery of bulldozers pulling masonry off of the corpses of Palestinian children killed by an Israeli airstrike inevitably overwhelmed Israel's arguments about its own security.
But that was just the air campaign. This time, as last time, a ground assault would have caused far more casualties and far more intimate destruction. In this case the world's media would have been watching, and the inevitable targeting mistakes and excesses would have been documented in real time. What's more, the parallels between Israel's assault on Gaza and Bashar al-Assad's assault on the Syrian opposition would have been unavoidable: Israel decimates al-Shifa Hospital; Assad's forces obliterate the main hospital of Aleppo. That's bad company for Israel to be in.
Does it matter? Liberal American Jews like me may writhe over the Goldstone Report, but the Israeli leadership, and many Israelis, view the periodic denunciations as the cost of doing business. Hamas "wins" by further undermining Israel in world opinion and bringing new Arab allies to its side; but Israel doesn't actually lose, at least so long as it can count on Washington to supply it with arms and funds, and to stand by its side at moments of crisis. Israel now lives in an Iron Dome world: incoming missiles clang off its miracle shield, while America stands ready to repel any assaults on its legitimacy at the United Nations or elsewhere.
This is not a recipe for long-term security; but Israelis seem to feel that they can no longer afford to think long-term. Every few years they have to "cut the grass," with at F-16 as their scythe. As a metaphor it sounds grotesquely cynical, though what it really reflects is a policy founded on despair. There is no political solution, and neither is there a lasting military solution. The real goal of policy is to lengthen as much possible the period of time between these acts of lethal maintenance. In this respect, the ceasefire agreement may turn out to be a failure, because Hamas will be able to regroup faster than it had after Operation Cast Lead in 2009. And even if Hamas concludes -- as Hezbollah has since the 2006 Lebanon war -- that its interests are best served by husbanding its resources, one of the more radical factions in Gaza, like Islamic Jihad, maybe be delighted to invite another round of Israeli grass-cutting.
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.