The Next Bold Moves?

11.21.12 9:00 PM ET

The ceasefire has taken effect, and hopefully it will hold. But only if Barack Obama capitalizes on the new situation with moves much bolder than those of his first term will the Gaza War change the interminable dynamic of violence between Hamas and Israel.

Many are probably surprised that Benjamin Netanyahu has turned out to be more cautious than his predecessor Ehud Olmert. He learned the lessons from the fallout of Operation Cast Lead early 2009, when the killing of about 1,400 Palestinians quickly eroded initial international support and turned Israel into a virtual pariah state in international opinion. The Israeli military was more circumspect in choosing its targets, and Netanyahu succeeded in breaking the cruel logic of escalation between Hamas and Israel at a relatively early stage.

Will this new round of bloodletting change anything in Israeli politics or the landscape of the Middle Eastern conflict? While I do not think that Netanyahu sought this Operation to gain advantage for the elections, it will no doubt strengthen him. This was the first time he led Israel in a major military operation, and he has proven to be calm and, most importantly, able to keep Israel out of another humanitarian and diplomatic disaster like Operation Cast Lead. As there is no reasonable scenario in which he will not be Prime Minister after the elections, this doesn’t make much of a difference: none of his opponents is really trying to replace him—they just want good seats at his next government.

Hamas as largely achieved its goals: it has deflected attention from Mahmoud Abbas’s U.N. bid for recognition of Palestine, and it remains to be seen whether Abbas will now proceed with it. Hamas has taken a place of honor at the negotiating table and established a good working relationship with Mohammed Morsi’s Egyptian government. More Palestinians now feel that Hamas’s resistance is more impressive than Abbas’s moderate line, and this increases Hamas’s challenge to Abbas’s leadership.

Morsi has shown that he can deliver in a major conflict situation. He got prime time on all international news channels, and he cooperated fruitfully with the U.S., thus ensuring U.S. aid for the time being. He may well have positioned himself to assume the leadership position Egypt traditionally held in the Arab world.

Obama gained points by flying Hillary Clinton in at exactly the right time. The question is whether he will capitalize on this for renewed deeper involvement in the Middle Eastern Conflict. Vis-à-vis Israel, he has a strong position, because Israelis are painfully aware that the destruction the IAF sowed in Gaza will not guarantee a long-term truce—after all Gaza’s horrible punishment in 2009 yielded only a brief respite.

If Obama chooses to use the momentum, there is one tactic he should avoid: to restart the interminable bickering between Netanyahu and Abbas on what terms they are willing to resume bilateral negotiations. We have seen that this doesn’t lead anywhere.

I see two more fruitful approaches: in the short run he could try to use the pressure exerted by Abbas’s intention to seek U.N. recognition. There were reports that Israel’s foreign ministry was formulating an offer for recognizing Palestine in temporary borders in return of Abbas’s dropping the U.N. bid.

Abbas is unlikely to accept the reported formula, because it doesn’t give any timeframe for final status negotiations: Palestinians will say that they will get stuck with the 50 percent of the West Bank offered by Lieberman, and that the final status negotiations may never happen. But if the U.S. could lead towards an offer Abbas could accept, this could be a potential game changer.

But in the long run the only viable strategy is to engage with the peace initiative of the Arab League. This is the single route I can see of forcing Hamas to abandon its stated goal of destroying Israel. If Hamas realizes that the whole Arab world wants a peace agreement with Israel, it will probably understand that it’s time to move towards compromise.

We can only hope that Obama will get over his unsavory experiences with Netanyahu and engage once again in the Middle East, and that if he does, he will think big.