If the crisis unfolding in the Gaza Strip is a reminder of the durability of Arab-Israeli antagonisms, it is also, in its troubling and costly way, a potential blessing to the incoming administration of Barack Obama.
By highlighting the quixotic, mutually destructive nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Hamas's missile attacks on southern Israel and Israel's massive response provide President-elect Obama with critical leverage to prod long-needed concessions by both sides. If the moment is seized, serious steps toward a lasting peace could be taken, setting the stage for a major foreign-policy success. If it is not, Obama may forfeit one of the last opportunities to save the region from a downward spiral that could potentially destabilize the entire international system.
The governing fact that creates this dangerous but propitious moment is that neither Israel nor its Palestinian neighbors can indefinitely survive their decades-long conflict.
Whatever the provocative act of targeting southern Israel may do for Hamas politically, it will do little to redeem Gaza from crushing facts on the ground. Its territory, less than one-tenth the size of Rhode Island, bears 1.5 million people and sports one of the fastest-growing populations in the world. Two-thirds of Gazans live in poverty. Nearly half are unemployed. Gaza's long-term viability under current circumstances is virtually nonexistent.
Israel's future is also uncertain. Its air and ground operations, aimed at crippling Hamas's rocket offensive, amply demonstrate – as did its inconclusive war with Lebanese Hezbollah forces in 2006 – the relative impotence of the regional omnipotence deriving from its exclusive possession of nuclear weapons. In addition to Hamas in Gaza, Israel faces a rearmed Hezbollah equipped with an arsenal of Russian-made Katyusha rockets, estimated at more than 30,000, that is now at least double what it possessed at the onset of the 2006 war. With the potential to immobilize cities as far away as Tel Aviv, the rockets could serve as a deterrent to Israeli military action to destroy the nuclear potential of its chief regional adversary – and Hezbollah's chief patron – Iran.
Meanwhile, internal demographic trends bode ill, within the near term, to make Jews a minority in geographical Palestine and eventually within Israel itself – trends that, absent a peace settlement, may make it impossible for Israel to long remain both a democracy and a Jewish state. The danger is exacerbated by the growing restiveness of the country's large and growing Arab minority.
The brutal competition between Palestinians and Israelis has placed an unsustainable mortgage on the futures of both. Nor is it a contest that either side can win. Arab nationalism, reflected in demands for a Palestinian state, can be contained by Israel at high political, military, and moral cost, but not extinguished, even if missile attacks from Gaza are stanched and Hamas crushed. Meanwhile, while Palestinian military and terrorist attacks may win moral and public relations victories on the Arab street, they will never attain Hamas's goal of driving Jews into the sea.
It is the very pointlessness of the continuing conflict – and the danger that it could radicalize Arab opinion, put pressure on moderate Arab regimes, and nourish anti-US and anti-Israel sentiment around the globe – that provide Obama with the unanswerable argument needed to justify a more-assertive US peacemaking role.
Opposition will be formidable. Mutual hatreds, fears, and habits of conflict are deeply ingrained, making both sides reluctant to consider needed concessions. Meanwhile, Obama – like every president before him – will face a powerful domestic lobby, overwhelmingly supported in Congress, that has shielded Israel from concessions (such as Jewish settlements on Palestinian land), that, made earlier, might have spared the region considerable anguish.
Prospects are fast diminishing to effect the only viable compromise that can retrieve the region from escalating conflict: the very two-state solution envisioned by the United Nations the year before Israel was created, in 1948. Among other things, such an outcome would force all Palestinian factions, not just Fatah, to accept a permanent Jewish state in Palestine. It would require Israel to relinquish Zionist aspirations that now extend well into the other Palestinian territory, the West Bank.
In the face of certain opposition, Obama need only ask one inescapable question: What's the alternative?
Pressing the point, especially in the early stages of an administration that will need to husband as much goodwill as possible to deal with economic issues at home, will require presidential risk-taking on an unprecedented scale. But two risk-taking American presidents – Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, brokers, respectively, of the Camp David and Madrid peace processes – have demonstrated the possibilities.
Events in the intervening years make the odds longer for Obama, even as the stakes are now higher. But if he chooses to capitalize on the outpouring of global goodwill that greeted his election, the results could be transformative, for Israelis, for Palestinians, and for the world.