Gaza Strip
By By Michael D. Purzycki Contributor December 3, 2012

Until Israel and Hamas can halt their fighting, a broader Israeli-Palestinian peace will remain elusive.

Although a comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely far away, there are reasons to be optimistic about prospects for a lull in violence between Israel and Hamas. These warring parties need not diplomatically recognize each other in order to bring about a mutual understanding that will limit the bloodshed. What is needed is a tacit understanding by both sides that a mitigation of conflict, however tense and precarious it might be, serves each side’s security interests. While such an informal arrangement will not, by itself, be enough to guarantee a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace, it will be an important step in that direction.

The first step toward this kind of understanding is for Israelis to not to take Hamas’ rhetoric, as troubling as it often is, too seriously. The group’s members may still harbor a deep desire to destroy the Jewish state, but their leaders have no rational incentive to initiate a conflict with Israel on a scale that would result in the destruction of Hamas and its infrastructure in the Gaza Strip. Whatever Islamic extremists may preach about the supposed evils of Zionism, the leaders of Hamas realize that Israel is not going away.

With Iran likely developing a nuclear weapon (and arming Hamas with missiles that can reach Jerusalem and Tel Aviv), Egypt now being governed by avowed friends of Hamas, and the civil war in Syria spilling over into Israel, it is perfectly natural for Israelis to feel that they are surrounded by enemies and have no choice but to use preventive force if they are to survive. But Jerusalem must accept the simple truth that many of these events are beyond its control, and that in many cases, Israeli intervention will only make a bad situation worse. Instead, Israel should concentrate on defensive measures, such as strengthening its Iron Dome missile defense system. Moreover, offensive measures, such as air strikes, should only be used where there is strong evidence of an immediate, specific threat to Israeli civilians.

For their part, the leaders of Hamas must realize that they do themselves and their fellow Palestinians no favors when they dare Israel to escalate its military strikes in Gaza. Now that they are governing a territory, they are responsible for the welfare of that territory’s population. Thus a strategy of firing missiles at Israeli civilians in order to provoke a disproportionate Israeli response is both unwise and immoral, no matter how much international support the Palestinians might gain by it. Furthermore, when Hamas has the power to prevent a group, such as Islamic Jihad, from launching attacks on Israeli targets but declines to do so, Hamas must accept the consequences of its inaction on the people of Gaza.

Outside actors, particularly Egypt, can play important roles in maintaining such a cold peace. Though neither side will openly acknowledge it, Egypt is already a crucial intermediary in back-channel negotiations between the warring parties. As such, its Muslim Brotherhood government could emerge as the internationally acknowledged arbiter that prevents the parties from escalating their fighting, provided the Brotherhood first makes absolutely clear that, whatever its sympathies for Hamas may be, it will maintain the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

Cracking down on the flow of weapons into Gaza via the Sinai Peninsula is one measure Egypt can take to help Israelis feel secure that the Brotherhood is committed to playing the role of neutral arbiter, rather than siding unconditionally with Hamas. The United States can also support this process by helping Israel improve its defensive weapons systems and by coordinating American and Israeli nuclear strategies so that the two states will be on the same page in dealing with a nuclear-armed Iran. It will also be important, as long as the Egypt-Israel treaty is maintained, for Washington to stay fully engaged with any elected government in Cairo, whether its foreign policy fully aligns with U.S. goals or not.

None of this means that the status quo of the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict is sustainable over the long term. The failure of the Israeli government to permanently halt the construction of settlements in the West Bank, combined with the failure of most Middle Eastern regimes to engage with Israel, makes reaching a two-state solution extremely difficult. But a minimum of a partial peace between Israel and Hamas is vital if such a solution is to ever be achieved; as long as violence between the two sides proceeds, the attention of the world cannot be focused as closely on the goal of a broader peace.

Michael D. Purzycki is a graduate of the Division of Global Affairs at Rutgers University-Newark (M.S., January 2012).

Photo courtesy of Amir Farshad Ebrahimi via Flickr.