I don't know what happens next. There is no way of knowing what happens next. We don't even know exactly what happened two days ago, when the Cairo talks seemed close to reaching an agreement; or yesterday, when someone decided to fire rockets at Israel; or this morning, when Israel attempted to assassinate Hamas arch-terrorist Muhammad Deif. But by and large, there are four possible options for what happens next – that is, in the coming 2-3 days:
Option 1: cease fire without negotiations. Likelihood: fairly small.
It is not impossible that Israel and Hamas will find a way to promptly move back to a situation of a de facto cease fire. For this to happen, there needs to be pressure on Hamas to halt rocket firing, and acceptance by Israel of an end to its currently open-ended operation. Curiously, for Israel, this might be a better solution to the crisis than having to renegotiate with Hamas – a move that is now recognized as a mistake by many senior Israelis (Minister Tzipi Livni is one example). The problem with getting to such an ending is threefold: One – because it would mean that there is no agreement and hostilities can resume at any given time. Two – because it would mean that both sides ended the operation with few tangible achievements to show for. Three – pressure on Hamas is needed, but there are no candidates that are both capable and willing to put that pressure on Hamas.
Option 2: cease fire with negotiations. Likelihood: small.
Negotiating with Hamas is out of fashion with the Israeli public and with its leaders. Yet circumstances can still force Israel into more rounds of negotiations (the Israeli government’s ability to compromise, though, is lower today than it was yesterday). If there is pressure from the world community, and especially from Cairo, Israel might still have to give the talks another chance. The likelihood of this happenning now is small, because all involved participants understand that even if negotiations resume, they are not likely to end successfully.
Option 3: limited Israeli counter attack. Likelihood: high.
Israel did not want to occupy Gaza a month ago, and it doesn't want to occupy Gaza now. The cost will be high, in Israeli blood, Palestinian blood (much higher), and intensifying international pressures. So it is tempting for Israel to first try something less sweeping: a combination of bombings, targeted assassinations, some ground forces maneuvering, and other (possibly civilian) means of pressure. The problem with getting to such an ending is threefold: One – politically speaking, it will be tricky for Prime Minister Netanyahu to convince his ministers to give yet another chance to a limited approach. Two – it was tried and failed, so why try the same solution again? Three – this is what Hamas wants, to be able to keep firing rockets as Israel kills Gazans, many of them non-combatants.
Option 4: large scale ground operation. Likelihood: fairly high.
Judging by opinion polls and by other means, this is what the Israeli public expects. And politicians in a democracy eventually have to do what the public wants them to do. It is also becoming suspiciously possible that Hamas acts the way it does because it doesn't believe that the threat of a large scale Israeli invasion is serious – meaning that Israel's deterrence was weakened, not strengthened, in the last couple of weeks. On the other hand, as I already mentioned, the large scale operation has many downsides: high cost in blood, budget, international support, but also the lack of a clear and practical 'day after' plan. If Israel invades Gaza and defeats Hamas and kills all the Hamas leaders – what then?
Bottom line: short cuts do not work.
A while ago, I wrote an article about the Middle East peace process in which I was trying to analyze why Secretary of State John Kerry failed to achieve an agreement.
[F]ailure is in the eye of the beholder. And in this case only those who expected a deal — the Americans — failed. They failed to reach their goal, and failed to understand that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have other goals in mind (or, more likely, they understood yet failed to draw the proper conclusions). But for the two parties with real interests at stake, the talks were a success. They succeeded in proving, once again, that there are things more important for them than peace and calm — things like national pride, sacred traditions, symbols and land.
This lesson applies to the failure to get to a cease-fire in the last two weeks. While we are all currently accustomed to saying that in conflicts such as this one there can be no clear winner and clear loser, and that the outcome is always murky – reality teaches us that with no winner there is no conclusion, and with no conclusion there is no calming of hostilities. Israel wants calm – if its conditions are met. Hamas wants calm – if its conditions are met. The conditions of the two parties are not compatible enough to both be accommodated. One party has to first get to a stage in which it feels that its conditions have to be moderated or else the price it pays will become too high. That, obviously, and unfortunately for the many people who are going to pay dearly for the ongoing tension, has not happened yet.