Three weeks into the Israeli-Palestinian armed conflict over a kidnapped Israeli soldier, the violence has taken a very dangerous turn, veering into Lebanon, and possibly elsewhere. One way out is to understand the new elements in this two-front war.
Often, it's difficult to sort out who started what in a Middle East conflict, but that's not the case here. Militant Islamists – Hamas in the Gaza strip and Hizbullah in Lebanon – provoked this by incursions into Israel, killing and abducting Israeli soldiers, and demanding the release of Arab prisoners in exchange for the Israeli captives.
Why did they do this? Most likely to justify their militancy at a point when democracy and peace in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon were getting too close for comfort – but not yet close enough to check their power.
At the same time, Hamas, newly elected to run the Palestinian legislature and ministries but internally divided between moderates and militants, needed to divert attention from peace moves by President Abbas and worsening daily life under its watch. And Hizbullah, also holding ministries in a more democratic Lebanese government, has been under growing pressure to disarm. What better way to justify both groups' violence – supported by Syria and Iran – than to align with an issue that has emotional standing among Palestinians and with which they've had success with Israel in the past: prisoner exchanges?
As for Israel, no prime minister would brook soldier kidnappings and rocket attacks on civilians from both borders. This is especially true for new Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who campaigned on further unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories and who still has his security credentials to prove. He has recognized that he has no peace partner in Hamas, at least not yet.
Meanwhile, the West may have emboldened militants through its strategy of complete isolation of Hamas. That approach forced Hamas moderates out on a limb, with no way provided for them to slowly climb down and change position on recognizing Israel and renouncing violence.
But crises have a way of changing attitudes, and that can happen here.
One possibility is that, facing war and its effect on civilians, moderate leaders of the governments to which Hamas and Hizbullah belong will find the backbone to stand up to the militant factions.
These fledgling democratic governments could find strength in their publics, who don't want war. That's why, before all this happened, Mr. Abbas proposed a referendum relating to dealings with Israel. The idea gave him leverage with Hamas – something the militants didn't like. Moderates could also threaten to expel these groups from government leadership, to which they belong for the first time. That risks political collapse, but that could happen anyway.
Far more likely is that the international community will awaken and more strongly engage in this problem, which threatens to turn into a regional war. Arab foreign ministers meet this weekend and so do leaders of the G-8 industrialized nations. This is an opportunity for them to apply concerted diplomatic pressure toward a ratcheting down and an eventual cease-fire – which is the most one can hope for at this stage.