The concept that Israel has no choice but to use military force or go to war has a long history in Israeli strategic and popular thinking. Again today, one hears Israel has no other option but to attack Hamas and Gaza. I beg to differ. Here are two options:
1. Given a cease-fire and de-escalation from the last few days, Hamas and Israel could talk about a long-term truce. At this point, I’ll quote @doranimated from a twitter change today: “You totally misread Hamas, IMHO. There’s no deal to be had.” But why not test the waters and see if some of the leadership of Hamas would like to move away from violent resistance, as has often been claimed? (see here too for Brent’s take) The status quo is unstable (both on the Israeli-Palestinian and regional front), deadly, and insecure. Millions of civilians are suffering. So start small and build toward a longer cease-fire; if it fails, Israel and Hamas are just back to the same confrontation and major flareups every few months. Hamas clearly does not need a long-term cease-fire to be in a position to do Israel harm.
Egypt would likely welcome an effort to mediate a more substantial Israeli-Hamas relationship. Any betterment of the situation in Gaza would take pressure off the Egyptian government. It would reduce the centrality of deciding how open to keep Rafah. It might help address the chaos, smuggling, and insecurity in Sinai. It would be an opportunity to demonstrate to the United States that Egyptian-US ties (and aid!) are worth protecting.
2. OK, fine, you think that the Hamas-Israel route is bankrupt? Israel could take a political process with President Mahmoud Abbas seriously. Build up political relations with the West Bank, take Fayyadism* seriously – not just economically but also politically – and get back to high-level negotiations. By moving toward a two-state solution with Abbas, Israel could try to marginalize Hamas; this is not a new idea. Arab states, like Egypt or Qatar, that saw a real two-state solution developing might even lean on Hamas to jump on the bandwagon.
To pursue this second alternative, Israel has to do a few things. It needs to jettison the “no partner” talk. In 2000-01 (Camp David/Taba) and again in 2008 (Annapolis), Israel and the PA held serious negotiations that solved many but not all issues. Crucial, hard sticking points remain but that is what negotiations are for. Yes, Israel withdrew civilian settlers from Gaza in 2005, but it intentionally did so without a negotiated agreement and it followed the withdrawal by taking steps that guaranteed a negative outcome. In addition, Israel needs to stop focusing on tactics (freeze, not freeze) and recognize that for strategic reasons it needs this process to get a full work-out. If you will it, it is no dream.
In this context, a move by the PA for a status upgrade at the UNGA later this month is an opportunity not a threat. Here is a chance for Israel to encourage a political step and, by engaging, perhaps to help define the meaning and parameters of that step.
There are deeper factors potentially at play here. If the Palestinian people have something to lose – as in statehood, sovereign territory, access to Jerusalem – they will act in ways that protect such gains. If the PA has something real and meaningful to show from using politics, politics will get a better name. Politicians will be able to credibly argue, as they cannot right now, that politics can deliver substantive achievements.
Of course, this assumes the PA and Israel both want a two-state solution. I think Abbas and the Fatah leaders do. I have my doubts that the current Israeli government supports a Palestinian state in 95%+ of the West Bank and Jerusalem as a shared capital of two states. If they do not, scratch this option off the list. Then Israel is back to the waiting game, as in waiting until the Palestinians give up. Just contain or police (h/t Joshua Rovner) the Palestinian problem. I’d speculate that such waiting ends up highlighting the religious and generational aspects of the conflict because there is no way nationalism will just fade away. So people have to fall back on faith and the sweep of history to help them imagine what is likely impossible in reality.
Both political options have problems. But the way is which the past (e.g. Camp David, Gaza withdrawal) has been used to discredit them is deeply flawed. There is no military solution. Let politics have its day and see if there is a political one.
*It may be too late but you get the point.
Update: “The End of Deterrence” is also directly relevant here.