The crisis over Gaza was triggered by a Hamas escalation of missile attacks against Israel, which resulted in Israeli retaliation, the killing of Ahmed Jabari -- the Hamas military chief, and the destruction from the air of major Hamas missile emplacements. The question now is how this escalation will end.
Since the Hamas attacks have not stopped, including the first missile over Tel Aviv since Saddam Hussein attacked Israel at the outset of the 1991 Gulf War, Israel is preparing for a ground attack. This leaves 2-3 days for a ceasefire to be reinstated. The U.S. will not deal directly with Hamas due to its having been designated a terrorist organization, so the only country that is capable of arranging a ceasefire is Egypt. President Morsi may well be reluctant to do so given his new Islamist government and the opposition to aiding Israel in any way by much of the Egyptian population. The challenge for the US is therefore to convince the Egyptian President to paint mediation as a way of saving Hamas and Gaza, and to move forward to achieve a ceasefire if Hamas will go along before Israel proceeds further.
If the Israelis do attack, they will have three options: reoccupy Gaza and remove Hamas, presumably returning the area to Palestinian Authority control; attempt to weaken Hamas by a massive assault as was pursued in Operation Cast Lead (Dec. 2008 to Jan. 2009), without completely taking over Gaza; or a peripheral strategy of a limited nature which would attack Hamas installations outside populated areas. Unless Hamas is removed, the other two approaches of attack will likely look toward repeated similar confrontations between Israel and Hamas in the years ahead. The key question will then be the degree of destruction and the political fallout, depending on the military tactics Israel uses each time, and the effectiveness of Hamas missiles.
But in addition to counting casualties on both sides, and assessing the relative effectiveness of each in achieving its aims, this time the Middle East is much more complicated in the wake of the Arab Spring. A new Egyptian Islamist government may well distance itself from Israel in dramatic ways. Jordan in is the midst of political crisis. Israel has much to lose from deteriorating relations with both Arab states with which it has peace treaties. And while Hezbollah has acquired thousands of weapons since it last confronted Israel in 2006, it is very unlikely that it would risk its hard-won gains in Lebanon by an attack on Israel, especially given the civil war in Syria and the need for those missiles as a possible retaliation should Israel attack Iran. But it could attack, and Israel can't ignore Hezbollah either. There are increasing dangers as the hostilities continue.
The Israelis also must face the past repeated sequence of its wars since 1982, when the first Lebanon-Israel war was waged. In each of these cases, Israel gained early, achieving many if its initial objectives, but then the problem of how to complete the remaining objectives and end the war satisfactorily emerged, and in the process Israel progressively began to suffer in world opinion and at home as it inflicted and suffered increasing casualties. The early military gains were slowly challenged by political and diplomatic difficulties that robbed Israel of its clear victories. The longer the Gaza war ensues the more challenges Israel will face.
But in this case Hamas and the other Islamist and radical organizations in Gaza also face severe challenges. The Netanyahu government, with elections in late January, may have an incentive to end the suffering of the Israeli people once and for all, even if the cost is high. If this is the case, Hamas could either suffer major losses or even be removed from power in Gaza. And Hamas has been doing well politically recently against its Palestinian foe, Fatah, led by Mahmoud Abbas. The latter's imminent bid to the United Nations for an observer state non-member status will almost certainly be successful, and will diminish Hamas' standing. Indeed, Hamas may well have increased its attacks on Israel to diminish Fatah at a critical moment.
Meanwhile, the crisis creates a new dilemma for the U.S., Israel, and some Europeans: They oppose the Palestinian Authority application because it will unilaterally change the dynamic of the peace process to the extent it still has potential, and the bid will likely permit the Palestinians to confront Israelis in various UN bodies such as the International Criminal Court. But Hamas would lose as a consequence of the PA application.
All of these mind-boggling complexities may offer the U.S. a possible opportunity for a diplomatic coup. Continue to back Israel solidly, coax Egypt's president to push for a ceasefire, and make a side deal with Abu Mazen to increase economic assistance to his Palestinian Authority in exchange for delaying his UN bid. After all, the UN application will be less necessary if Hamas suffers a major defeat at the hands of Israel. And the bid may be less appropriate at a time of turmoil initiated by the Israeli-Hamas confrontation. In this way a seeming political hurricane could be transformed into a new playing field offering President Obama a chance to move forward toward increasing stability in a region now seemingly escalating toward major disaster. Such an approach is certainly worth a try.
Steven L Spiegel is director of the Center for Middle East Development and professor of Political Science at UCLA. He is also a National Scholar at the Israel Policy Forum.