The rights and wrongs that have led to the current crisis between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza are scarcely irrelevant, but almost all of the different arguments on each side have only one outcome. They all help lead to a degree of strategic paralysis that ensures no stable solution is possible to the crisis, that future tensions will rise, that Palestinians will suffer more because they are weak, and that Israelis will not become more secure simply because they are strong.
At best, a cease-fire will not offer anyone in Gaza a real future or stop some new form of asymmetric attack on Israel. The only question is how long a pause will last and when the new attacks will come. A land invasion and air strike might or might not buy more time.
Only a lasting Israeli ground occupation, however, could provide a reasonable prospect of stopping future rocket attacks on Israel as long as the occupation lasted. Such an occupation, however, would inevitably lead to attacks on Israel Defense Forces (IDF) targets in Gaza, a new internal cycle of violence, and eventual Israeli withdrawal.
At a given point, which may well already have passed, more air strikes have to be made at targets of little or no marginal value, but at a continuing risk of hitting civilians. Additional air strikes will continue to have some value in pushing Gazans and the outside world to negotiate and possibly some cumulative, temporary deterrent impact. At the same time, they will steadily alienate Egypt, Jordan, the Arab public, and Europe. They will further undermine a gravely weakened Palestinian authority and a peace process that already has little or no credibility among most Palestinians and Israelis.
The same, of course, is true of Palestinian rocket attacks. They are far too ineffective in military terms to intimidate Israel and all too effective in making Israel respond and escalate. They also lead to the disproportionate use of force. Israel has to use far more force to achieve any impact that pushes the Palestinians to pause attacks than Hamas or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) has to use to fire rockets. The resulting comparisons of Israeli and Palestinian suffering do offer Hamas and the PIJ strategic leverage in terms of outside support, but then inflict far more suffering on their fellow Palestinians.
The very nature of the exchanges also offers extremists and hardliners on both sides the opportunity to escalate the use of force and gives a clear advantage to outside powers like Iran who fund and arm Palestinian violence. Limited, cheap transfers of money, arms, and skills to Palestinian extremists can lead to low-level attacks-with or without official Hamas tolerance or support-that Israel cannot (or will not) ignore. In fact, one key lesson Iran may have learned from the past week is that it can distract the world from Syria and gain political leverage over moderate Arabs at little or no cost or risk.
It is also clear that Arab extremists and Iran can use similar tactics in Lebanon or Syria and along the Golan, against Israelis and Jews outside Israel, and potentially in the West Bank and Israel proper as the Palestinian authority steadily loses credibility and popular support. Israel will always be able to out-escalate its immediate opponent, but it will have far more problems in attacking neo-Salafist extremist groups outside the Levant and Iran.
The end result will always hurt the Palestinians more in comparison, but this will not matter to violent Arab extremist groups whose main goal is to damage Israeli politically, damage more moderate Arab regimes, and undermine the peace process. This makes new rounds of violence, negotiations, cease-fires, pauses, and yet another cycle of attacks almost inevitable and seemingly endless. As long as extremist groups exist among the Palestinians, outside groups will support and manipulate them. Their goal in most cases will not have to have any relation to either supporting the Palestinians or destroying Israel. It will be to seek power and control in the Arab world.
It is fair to argue that this would not be true if there was a real and effective Israeli-Palestinian peace progress. The goals set at Oslo remain the only way of achieving any lasting grand strategic solution to the present cycle of violence. It is all too clear, however, that neither side now takes the process seriously or believes there is a meaningful partner on the other side. Rhetoric and gestures remain, and so do payoffs in aid and politics, but they are hollow covers to political power struggles on both sides that see the real supporters of peace grow steadily weaker and more irrelevant.
Today's Israel is the Israel of greater Jerusalem, expanding settlements, walls and barriers, and de facto pressure and discrimination against Israeli Arabs and West Bank Palestinians. It is the Israel of immediate security first. The Palestinians are effectively two separate movements: one tied to violence and anger in Gaza, and another tied to a fading hope for some kind of independent Palestinian Authority mini-state on the West Bank-and with a capital in East Jerusalem-on terms Israel now seems to firmly reject. The coming elections-or non-elections-on both sides are almost certain to make this worse, as are the comparative demographics and disparities in power and wealth.