The recent war in Gaza proves yet again what all reasonable people understood about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for many years: there is no military solution for either side, and both peoples’ hopes for a better future depend on reaching a peace agreement with each other.
Israel showered down extraordinary levels of death and destruction upon both Hamas and the innocent civilian population, killing more than 1,400 people (by most estimates, largely civilians) and destroying or severely damaging more than 21,000 homes and businesses. But the war did not succeed in changing the political status quo ante: Hamas remains in power in Gaza, and may have even been politically strengthened by the conflict. Palestinians remain under occupation, and Israelis continue to live without security.
Israel can certainly kill people, both combatants and innocents, and destroy buildings, but it cannot obliterate the presence of the Palestinian people on their own land or their determination to be free. Until Israelis and Palestinians can achieve an end-of-conflict agreement, Israel will remain a country at war — conducting a foreign military occupation over the land and lives of more than 5 million Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip – and will continue to be denied legitimacy by most of the people and the states of the Middle East.
The Palestinian national interest also depends on achieving an agreement with Israel. Hamas’ reckless actions in firing rockets into southern Israel only succeeded in delivering death and devastation to the people of Gaza. Palestinians cannot possibly hope to achieve independence and an end to the occupation through violence and armed struggle. In order to achieve independence and statehood, Palestinians will have to secure an agreement with Israel.
Friends of Israel and friends of the Palestinians do neither party any favor by rationalizing belligerence or defending indefensible actions. In published documents from March and June 2008, the American Task Force on Palestine warned that Hamas rocket attacks would ultimately provoke a disproportionate wide-scale Israeli military action that would be devastating to the people of Gaza but would not resolve any of the fundamental political problems or enhance security for Israelis in the long run. It has given us no satisfaction whatsoever to see this grimly predictable scenario play itself out so precisely.
Both parties have demonstrated that, on their own, they cannot overcome domestic political opposition to the compromises necessary for peace. Israelis and Palestinians require serious and sustained third-party support, which can only come from the United States. The war in Gaza has served as an important reminder to the incoming Obama Administration that the question of Palestine cannot be placed on the back burner, contained or “managed.” It must be resolved. Early signs from the new administration point towards an intensified American engagement, but this will require both determination and persistence.
Both Israeli and Palestinian societies are split between those who seriously seek a peace agreement and those who would continue to fight in vain for control of the entire territory. Palestinians are divided between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which is committed to achieving a peace agreement with Israel, and Hamas in Gaza that refuses to commit to this goal. The recent election in Israel left the Knesset deeply divided along the same lines.
Obviously, serious American engagement is required to lay the groundwork among both Israelis and Palestinians for a return to public confidence in the prospects for peace. This means helping the PA develop the Palestinian economy and institutions, particularly the security forces, that can serve as the building blocks of an independent state and restore the credibility of the PA leadership and its strategy of negotiations.
However, the most significant step required in helping Israelis and Palestinians move away from conflict and towards an agreement would be securing a freeze to Israeli settlement activity. Recently revealed documents suggest that various ministries in Israel have been planning huge increases in settlement activity in coming months and years. This must be prevented in order to secure the credibility and viability of peace negotiations.
The settlements, by deepening the political and logistical difficulties in establishing a Palestinian state to live alongside Israel in peace with every expansion, are the greatest single threat to a peaceful future. They ensure that the conflict only deteriorates over time. United States can build on its strategic relationship with Israel to provide sufficient political space and incentives for the Israeli leadership to take this essential but politically difficult step.
It would be wrong to downplay the difficulties facing the quest for peace. But it would be even more shortsighted and wrong not to acknowledge that a peace agreement is crucial, not only to Israel and the Palestinians, but to American national interests as well, and that, if we do what we must now, it is not yet too late.