As the fighting between Israel and Hamas rages on, the U.S.-mediated Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which ended in April, seem like a relic of the distant past. Although peace in the near future may be a pipe dream, it is precisely now, when the situation appears hopeless, that preparations for the resumption of negotiations ought to be made. To be sure, renewed talks would need to be conducted with greater seriousness, less mutual recrimination, and avoidance of the harmful unilateral steps that characterized the last round.
1. Hamas will be weakened. There is no military solution to the problem of Hamas, which Israel, the United States and much of the Western world regard as a terrorist organization. Israel has been able to crush Arab armies in devastating wars, but defeating terrorist organizations like Hamas has proved to be far more elusive. Operations "Rainbow" and "Days of Penitence" in 2004; "Summer Rains" and "Autumn Clouds" in 2006; "Hot Winter" and "Cast Lead" in 2008-09; "Pillar of Defense" in November 2012; and the ongoing "Protective Edge" have damaged Hamas's infrastructure, reduced its arsenal of rockets, and killed many of its military commanders, engineers and fighters. However, like the classic Timex commercials, Hamas can take a licking but keep on ticking. During the short-lived cease-fires, Hamas reorganizes its leadership, builds new terror tunnels and amasses greater quantities of increasingly higher-quality weapons. The Israeli operations are mere temporary fixes. The real danger to Hamas lies within the political realm. With Egypt no longer a patron of Hamas and the economy of Gaza in disastrous shape, Hamas is quite vulnerable today. If Palestinians are given hope for a better future, Hamas's radicalism, nihilism and destructive policies will relegate it to the margins of Palestinian society.
2. Abbas will be strengthened. Abbas is Israel's best hope for a deal that will end the conflict, once and for all. Israeli President Shimon Peres has called him "the best partner [for peace] that Israel ever had." Though not without flaws, he recognizes Israel's right to exist within secure borders; firmly opposes violence; and engages in security cooperation with Israel that has helped to keep Israelis safe. But the 79-year-old leader, who has even hinted at flexibility on arguably the most contentious issue of all — Palestinian refugees — will not be around forever. Unfortunately, Netanyahu has done little to help Abbas. He has treated him with derision and pursued policies, such as expanding settlements — even during the latest peace talks — that have led many Palestinians to view their leader as weak and feckless. Serious peace talks may help stave off a successor to Abbas that could be problematic for Israel; prevent the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, a scenario which would be destabilizing for the Palestinians, the Israelis and the Jordanians; and may even lead to an agreement.
3. The two-state solution will be kept alive. As many observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have long concluded, the only viable solution to the conflict is two states for two peoples — an independent Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace with Israel. The so-called "one-state solution" would lead to a catastrophe, worse even than the ethnic bloodbath in the former Yugoslavia. And the status quo — continued Israeli occupation — is morally and politically unacceptable; it can only lead to greater tension and violence. Moreover, given current demographic trends, an Israel that holds on to the West Bank and East Jerusalem will inevitably be forced to choose between being a democracy and a Jewish state; only a two-state solution ensures that Israel can remain both. The two-state solution is being undermined, however, by settlement expansion in territory the Palestinians regard as their future state. Skeptical that the Netanyahu government intends to provide them with a sovereign, contiguous state, polls show diminishing support among Palestinians for a two-state solution. Of course, Israelis have legitimate concerns of their own about Palestinian incitement against Israel and whether they will ever truly accept a Jewish state. What is a near certainty is that time is running out for a two-state solution.
4. Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking is one of the few areas in which the U.S. can still exert considerable influence. The world has become far more complicated since the days of the Cold War and its immediate aftermath. Today, the Obama administration finds itself unable to influence the unrest in Ukraine, the civil war in Syria, the sectarian violence in Iraq, or the political instability in other Mideast states that have experienced the "Arab Awakening." Fortunately, U.S. impotence in those areas can be countered with active engagement in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Although no U.S. president has thus far succeeded in brokering a peace agreement, major milestones in the Middle East peace process would not have taken place in the absence of U.S. involvement. Despite criticisms often voiced about America's role, both sides continue to see the U.S. as an indispensible mediator. As intractable as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, it is one of the few significant foreign policy issues in which the U.S. has at least the potential to make a big difference.
5. President Obama's timetable adds to the urgency of American mediation efforts. Now in his sixth year in office, Obama will have less and less political space in which to broker an Israeli-Palestinian agreement as he nears the 2016 presidential elections. There is still time for him to act before his presumed lame-duck status takes effect. Despite the collapse of the John Kerry-brokered peace talks, the negotiations purportedly narrowed many of the gaps between the two sides. Secretary of State Kerry's still-secret framework document could well serve as the basis for a renewed diplomatic push to bring the conflict to an end.
As Israel and Hamas battle it out in Gaza, Obama may find it useful to remind Abbas and Netanyahu of the approach taken by the late Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who pledged to "fight terrorism as if there was no peace process and pursue the peace process as if there was no terrorism."
Ziv is an assistant professor at American University's School of International Service and director of the Israel National Security Project (INSP). His forthcoming book, Why Hawks Become Doves: Shimon Peres and Foreign Policy Change in Israel, will be published by SUNY Press this year. His Twitter handle is @ZivGuy.