A dangerous uncertainty hovers over the Levant. Even before Israel commenced air strikes on the Gaza Strip on December 27, 2008 the situation in the region was volatile. The massive air strikes launched by Israel on Hamas targets were hardly surprising and seemed to send a simple message to Hamas: Enough is enough.
The official objective of the Israeli action is to stem the firing of Qassam rockets into southern Israel. A ceasefire, in effect between Israel and Hamas for six months, officially ended on 19 December following which Hamas pounded southern Israel with almost 300 rockets in just a few days. The rockets are seldom lethal, and have caused few injuries, but they enrage Israel. Yet the existence of a ceasefire for the past six months tells only half of the story. The other half concerns the economic blockade, imposed and sustained by Israel, which has left Gazans feeling under siege. Israel eased the blockade during the ceasefire but many essential goods remain banned.
The official purpose of the assault is not entirely fabricated but it does serve to mask an un-stated, but no doubt equally important, Israeli motivation: to remind their foes that they have teeth. A successful assault on Gaza may serve both to expunge the ghost of a flawed war against Lebanon in 2006 and to re-establish the credibility of Israeli deterrence. Put simply, Israel wants its enemies to fear it.
Furthermore, Israeli domestic politics may also have played a decisive role in determining both the timing and the severity of the assault. Israel will go to the polls on 10 February with the latest opinion polls suggesting that the Likud, led by former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, will emerge as the largest single party in the Knesset. The Likud still rejects the idea of a genuine state for the Palestinians, favouring "economic peace." Taking a tough stand against Hamas now may bolster the electoral prospects of the two principal parties in the governing coalition: Kadima, led by foreign minister Tzipi Livni, and Labour, led by defence minister Ehud Barak.
Those in Israel who seek peace with the Palestinians fear that Ms Livni—their new hope—will fall at the election along with the chances of a negotiated settlement. The triangular pattern of Israeli politics—with the centrist Kadima sucking support away from the Likud on the right and Labour on the left—looks set to harden the parliamentary gridlock, thus precluding real stability and a genuine move to settle the existential conflict.
Perhaps the most tragic element of the conflict is the fact that the outline of a solution remains obvious to most observers: draw a border roughly along the lines that existed before the war of 1967; share Jerusalem as capital of both states; and acknowledge, while agreeing not to implement, a symbolic right of return of Palestinians to the parts of their homeland now in Israel. There can be no lasting peace, and no regional stability, without a strong and secure Israel, and a sovereign and viable state for the Palestinians. Whether the parties agree to resolve the situation in 2009 or 2019 they will face the same geography, the same neighbours, and the same animosities. More years of bloodshed and pain will not change those facts. The only path to a real and lasting peace is through negotiation. But what prospect of that?
Much will depend on the outcome of February’s elections and whether Hamas and Fatah are able to settle their differences. Certainly, the situation seems worse now than it has for several years. But the night is darkest just before the dawn and even hard-liners like Mr Netanyahu have proven more conciliatory in office than in opposition. Much may hinge on the approach adopted by the incoming Obama administration.
Obama’s election raised expectations that new American policies are forthcoming. But the president-elect has shown no sign of having any better ideas than President Bush. Indeed, on a visit to Sderot, a small city on the edge of Gaza, earlier this year Obama commented: “If somebody was sending rockets into my house, where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing."
The U.S. established a new framework at Annapolis in November but Hamas was excluded. Instead the Palestinians were represented by Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority and the head of Fatah who control only the West Bank. During the Democratic primaries, Mr Obama suggested that he did not necessarily oppose negotiations with groups like Hamas, though he spent much of the campaign retreating from that position under fire from critics. His approach thus remains murky at best.
On the ground the same arguments are being re-stated almost hourly. Israel will not rest until Hamas stops firing rockets across the border. Hamas demands that Israel end the economic blockade. Hamas will kill more Israelis. Israel will kill more Palestinians. Until someone, or something, breaks the deadlock, it’s Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun.