It is more a question of when than if there will be another ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Even as fighting raged late last week, the outlines of one were clear. Hamas will agree to stop firing rockets into Israel; the Israelis will pull back their forces from Gaza. New measures will slow but not stop the smuggling of arms from Egypt into Gaza.
What will Israel have accomplished then? It will have demonstrated that Hamas cannot shell Israeli territory with impunity, and that Israel is not bound by rules of proportionality. Hamas will be weaker militarily. Several leaders have been killed along with a large number of fighters, and its ability to produce and launch rockets is diminished. In the process, Israel's armed forces have restored some of their reputation, which had lost considerable luster after the unsuccessful campaign against Hizbullah in 2006. Iran, the principal patron of both Hamas and Hizbullah and the greatest regional threat to Israel, may no longer think Israel is a helpless giant.
But attacking Hamas has had the contradictory effect of strengthening its reputation as the main arm of Palestinian resistance. And images of what Israeli weapons in some instances did to innocent Palestinians has forfeited sympathy for Israel and made it more difficult for moderate Arab governments to normalize relations with the country. A ceasefire will prove to be little more than a break between rounds of warfare if something is not done to change the dynamics between Israel and its neighbors.
Northern Ireland is relevant here. Peace was made there only after many years and after the British Army convinced the Irish Republican Army that it could not shoot its way into power. But just as important were British diplomats, who made it clear that minority Catholics could get a fair deal if they renounced violence and embraced politics. Indeed, while they did not get all they wanted, they got a great deal more than they had.
All of which leads to President Obama and the new U.S. administration. Every crisis holds within it the seeds of opportunity, and this one is no exception. But to take advantage of it, Washington must give Palestinians a reason for choosing talks over terror. The only way to do this is to demonstrate that talking—negotiating—will deliver more than fighting.
Sooner rather than later the new president should publicly articulate the contours of what the United States believes would constitute a just settlement of the Middle East conflict. This means calling for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state based on 1967 lines, with territorial compensation for those borders altered to take into account Israel's large settlement blocs and legitimate security requirements. Palestinian refugees would receive financial compensation and the right to settle in the new country of Palestine but, with few exceptions, not in Israel. Palestinians would enjoy some foothold in Greater Jerusalem (so that they could claim it as their capital) and authority over Muslim holy places.
Aid and investment can also strengthen the hands of moderates, although it needs to be complemented by easing the movement of goods and people in and out of the West Bank and Gaza. It is essential to rein in Israeli settlement activity lest Palestinians conclude their state will never be viable. And it's worth trying to drive a wedge between Hamas and Syria. The United States should join with Turkey in mediating between Syria and Israel. A deal ought to be possible in which Israel returns all of the Golan Heights (which are then demilitarized for a set period of time) in exchange for peace and a halt to Syrian support for Hizbullah and Hamas. The United States would then ease economic sanctions against Damascus.
We have learned in Iraq and elsewhere that political and economic progress cannot take place without security. This means we should continue to build up Palestinian police and military forces. It could also mean creating an international force, possibly one drawn from Arab and Islamic countries, to maintain calm in Gaza. The alternative is to depend on Israeli deterrence and Hamas's restraint, which as recent events demonstrate are prone to breaking down.
It is too soon to know whether the moderates would win out over the radicals or, as happened in Northern Ireland, many of the radicals would evolve and become more moderate. This should be encouraged; over time, elements of Hamas might conclude that their only hope of realizing a Palestinian state is by trading in their guns. Those willing to embrace this approach could become part of a Palestinian coalition government.
There is more than a little urgency to all this. Land is being confiscated; people on both sides of the divide are growing alienated. If this opportunity to create a lasting peace is lost, it would be a tragedy, and not just for Palestinians. Israel needs a successful Palestinian state almost as much as the Palestinians do if it is to remain democratic, Jewish, prosperous and secure.