Skip to main content

Israelis, Palestinians in game with no end

By Aaron Miller
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Palestinian protesters stand amid smoke after Israeli forces fired tear gas in East Jerusalem on July 4.
Palestinian protesters stand amid smoke after Israeli forces fired tear gas in East Jerusalem on July 4.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aaron Miller: Five elements to keep in mind in this Israeli-Palestinian conflict
  • Miller: This is not a third intifada; the conflict has become personalized
  • Miller: Gaza is exploding again; there is not much the U.S. can do
  • What will happen next? Miller says it's unlikely the situation will change

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- I would like to think that the horrific killings of Israeli and Palestinian children in recent days -- and the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza -- will force a moment of truth, more rational thinking and real options to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But I know better. There is still not enough pain and prospects of gain to warrant that.

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, Israelis and Palestinians have entered another yet violent cycle of reaction and counterreaction.

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

Here are five essential elements to keep in mind as we watch another sequel in this tragic and long-running movie:

First, we're not on the verge of a third intifada. True, the situation is raw, tense and full of passion, with a kind of "there will be blood" atmosphere. But a sustained uprising or military confrontation on the part of West Bankers and Gazans along the lines of the first or second intifadas is likely not in the cards.

The Palestinian public's priorities are economic and social development. Unlike Yasser Arafat, PLO head Mahmoud Abbas really has given up the gun. And Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation seems to be holding.

Palestinians inspect destroyed buildings following an Israeli military strike in Gaza City on Tuesday.
Palestinians inspect destroyed buildings following an Israeli military strike in Gaza City on Tuesday.

Hamas' motives are more suspect, and it may well have a stake in escalation in the West Bank. But Hamas cannot provoke a sustained uprising on its own without broad public support. Israel's success in breaking the second intifada is still a fresh memory.

Moreover, Hamas suicide attacks badly undermined the Palestinian image, and Palestinians don't have much stomach for a return to such tactics.

Second, the conflict has become personalized. It's always been characterized by a perverse intimacy driven by the reality of proximity. One way to view it is the old chestnut that the lack of peace is because the Israelis and Palestinians don't really know one another.

The other more cynical and real view also applies: They know one another only too well. And they don't like what they see.

Unlike Israelis and Egyptians or Israelis and Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians are living on top of one another as occupier and occupied. And although the murder of innocents, particularly children, makes today's situation worse, we've been through grimmer periods: two intifadas; two Israeli-Hamas confrontations over Gaza in which civilians died, including children; and many acts of terror and violence.

Indeed, horrific acts have long characterized Israeli-Palestinian interaction. In 1994, an Israeli settler massacred some 30 Palestinians at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. In May 2001, the bodies of two Israeli teens were discovered in a cave in the West Bank -- their skulls crushed with rocks, their killers never found.

Third, Gaza is exploding (again). The conflict in Gaza is real and dangerous. We've also seen this movie before.

In 2008 and 2012, we watched sustained confrontations with airstrikes, rockets and artillery between Israel and Hamas. And the results were predictably the same. No clear winner and no clear loser.

Israel has never been willing to invade Gaza, reoccupy it or supplant the Hamas government there. And Hamas' high-trajectory weapons have increased in range, lethality and precision, guaranteeing the organization a certain amount of leverage.

Israel raises shield against rocket attacks
Murdered Israeli teen's mother speaks out
Arrests made in killing of Palestinian
Israel steps up airstrikes against Hamas

It's likely Israel does not want to mount a serious ground incursion and is hoping that airstrikes in Gaza and 40,000 troops mobilizing the border will be enough to get Hamas to back down and restore calm. Hamas' end game isn't altogether clear.

They have posited demands for calm that include the release of prisoners arrested during the Israelis' recent sweep of the West Bank and have called upon Egypt to open up the Rafah crossing from Gaza into Egypt.

No matter how this latest escalation ends, one thing seems pretty certain. It will not end in a definitive solution. Hamas is likely to remain ensconced in Gaza unless the Israelis are prepared to uproot it. And that will require not only a ground invasion but reoccupation.

The notion that Israel could invade Gaza, kick out Hamas and then put Abbas' Fatah in charge strains credulity to the breaking point. It's highly unlikely, particularly if an Israeli invasion led to significant Palestinian civilian casualties, that Abbas could ride to victory on the back of Israeli tanks.

Fourth, the U.S. role. There's not a great deal that the United States should or could do at this point. With Israel in the middle of its Operation Protective Edge, a mediation effort has no point. The problem isn't between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas; it's between Israel and Hamas. And the Egyptians and Israelis have a demonstrated track record in finding ways to calm the situation, assuming Hamas is interested.

Should the situation get to the point where Israel and Egypt need U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to intervene, the importance of a U.S. role might grow. But the last thing Washington needs right now is Kerry in Israel unable to stop Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rockets.

As for the situation in the wake of the killings of Israeli and Palestinian teens, it's hard to imagine what the U.S. could do. What is essential is that both Israel and the Palestinians work to calm matters -- and they don't need U.S. talking points to grasp how dangerous the situation is for them.

Fifth, what happens when this phase of violence passes? It's hopeful to think Israelis and Palestinians would see that it's urgent to find a way not only to de-escalate, but to resolve their conflict. But this is highly unlikely.

It would be one thing if this were a two-way conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. But it's three-way, including Hamas. And the faux unity deal reached between Hamas and Abbas will not survive. Hamas will remain a spoiler, lacking the power to disrupt a real peace process but always a potential troublemaker.

But even without Hamas, the upshot of Kerry's 10-month peace process effort reveals just how far apart Abbas and Netanyahu are on the core issues, such as Jerusalem, refugees and security. And so far, little in the current situation indicates that is likely to force a recalculation. Not enough pain or prospects of gain outweighs the reality -- however inconvenient -- that Abbas and Netanyahu believe that the risk of changing the status quo is more dangerous than maintaining it.

The peace process is like rock and roll. It will never die. And I'm certain that sometime before the end of the administration, Kerry will make another serious run. But unless there's a fundamental change in Israeli or Palestinian views, it's highly likely that Washington -- and the parties too -- will remain trapped between a two-state solution that's just too hard to implement and yet too important to abandon.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT