Since this is the third mini-war between Israel and Hamas in less than six years, some of the consequences being predicted by pundits sound pretty familiar. Such as: Israel’s offensive in Gaza will have the effect of destroying “moderate” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Or: Hamas is actually “winning by losing,” gaining new support among Palestinians and across the Middle East by standing up to Israel. Or: The stories of civilian casualties and accusations of “disproportionate” force are devastating Israel’s standing in the West.
All these claims were made in 2008, when Israeli troops invaded Gaza, and in 2012, when Israel carried out a bombing campaign. All proved wrong. More than five years after the end of Operation Cast Lead, Mr. Abbas is still standing. No one is revolting against his rule in the West Bank, even though he has reneged on multiple promises to hold overdue presidential elections since his term expired four years ago.
Hamas, in turn, is far weaker than it was in 2008. It has lost the ability to inflict damage and casualties on Israel with rocket attacks, and because it can no longer smuggle supplies through tunnels from Egypt, the current fighting is rapidly depleting its arsenal. Hamas’s civilian employees are going unpaid, its military commanders are being picked off and the population has turned on the Islamic movement.
As David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy observed last week, polling by a respected Palestinian organization shows that a large majority oppose Hamas’s rule. Eighty-eight percent say they want the supposedly discredited Mr. Abbas to assume authority over Gaza.
Israel is arguably under greater international pressure than it was in 2008. The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement has grown more visible since then. However, it’s still a marginal phenomenon, particularly in the United States. This year, as previously, the Gaza fighting has prompted anti-Israel demonstrations in numerous Western capitals, but a Pew survey released last week showed that 51 percent of Americans sympathize with Israel in the current fighting, vs. 14 percent who side with the Palestinians.
The depressing reality is that this Gaza conflict is headed toward a familiar ending: many people killed but little changed.
Israel most likely will avoid toppling Hamas from power in Gaza, since it does not want to go back to ruling the territory itself. Mr. Abbas may or may not finally step down in the coming months, but if he does it will be because, at 79, he is exhausted, not because he is being forced out. There may be new attempts to launch U.N. investigations of Israel’s alleged war crimes or to grant more recognition to a notional state of Palestine, but they are unlikely to have much effect.
The Obama administration may try again to launch an Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” despite its abject failure in two previous attempts. That, too, would go nowhere. Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have repeatedly demonstrated that they are not ready to make the necessary compromises.
There might be a way to change the status quo for the better, once the fighting is over. However, it would require all sides to embrace the option that was on the table immediately before the mini-war — and that may have triggered the fighting. That is the Palestinian “unity” process, under which the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be joined under a joint administration, by means of elections.
Though Hamas agreed to a unity deal last month, its hard-liners oppose it as much as Mr. Netanyahu does. The reason is simple: As the polls show, an election would probably break Hamas’s control over Gaza. That prospect, and Mr. Abbas’s refusal to pay the salaries of Hamas’s Gaza employees, may have inspired the renewal of missile attacks on Israel. For his part, Mr. Netanyahu used the occasion of the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers last month to arrest scores of Hamas operatives in the West Bank, a measure that sabotages the unity process.
A smart U.S. strategy would aim at brokering a deal between Israel, Mr. Abbas and Hamas whereby prisoners are released and the blockade on Gaza eased in exchange for Hamas’s commitment to a long-term cease-fire and free and fair elections for a unified Palestinian government. The result could be a new generation of Palestinian leaders with a genuine mandate from their people.
The new crowd might turn out to be more or less willing to negotiate with Israel or to lay the groundwork for statehood. But they would, at least, end a dismal era in which one set of Palestinian leaders dodged multiple peace proposals and the other engaged in futile wars.
Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post.