Columns of smoke rise following an Israeli air strike in Gaza City on Wednesday.… (Adel Hana / Associated Press )
After months of relative quiet — broken, in this country, only by the pandering of the presidential candidates — the century-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict has burst back into the news. It began last week when the Palestinian Authority revived its plan to seek an upgrade in the United Nations to "non-member observer status." On the face of it, that's hardly a game-changing power grab, and it seems unlikely to dramatically alter the regional balance of power. Nevertheless, Israel instantly deemed it an unacceptable unilateral action that would undermine negotiations and could lead to war crimes prosecutions of Israelis in the International Criminal Court. Senior Israeli officials warned Tuesday of grave consequences, threatening to expand settlements as a punishment or even to "cancel" the peace process altogether.
Well, excuse us, but what negotiations and peace process are they referring to? For all intents and purposes, the process has been dead for several years. Palestinians refuse to participate in talks because of continued settlement expansion. Israelis won't commit to a moratorium on settlement building. The two sides live behind walls and checkpoints in an atmosphere of smoldering hostility and sporadic violence. The United Nations bid — expected to be presented to the General Assembly on Nov. 29 — is certainly a unilateral move, and maybe it will turn out to be a counterproductive one, but the underlying problem is that bilateralism, at the moment, isn't going anywhere.
That was last week. This week, Israel launched an intense air assault on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in response to the more than 750 rockets that have been fired into southern Israel this year, resulting in relatively few casualties but destroying property and terrorizing the population. The Israeli counterattack that began Wednesday has so far killed the Hamas military leader, Ahmed Jabari, and at least 15 other people in Gaza; a Palestinian rocket on Thursday killed three Israelis in an apartment building in the small town of Kiryat Malachi. President Obama and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, among others, have called for restraint and de-escalation.
PHOTOS: Attacks in Southern Israel and Gaza Strip
Israel unquestionably has the right to defend itself against rockets fired by militants in Gaza. No nation is obliged to suffer such attacks without responding. And this year, according to Israeli Foreign Ministry officials, there have been twice as many rocket attacks as last year.
But as it responds, Israel would be wise to remember the brutal war it fought in Gaza four years ago that killed 1,200 Palestinians without successfully dislodging Hamas or permanently stopping the militants and their rockets. Israel was condemned around the world for that disproportionate assault and gained little. Going back down that familiar path would be catastrophic.
Solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is strategically critical to the creation of a stable, peaceful Middle East. Successive American presidents have recognized that and have, with few exceptions, spent substantial time and resources trying to bring the parties together. We would certainly empathize with Obama if he were tempted to walk away in frustration from a situation that appears to offer little political upside, but it would be a mistake. It would be particularly dangerous to ignore the conflict at a moment when Egypt's first post-Arab Spring president, Mohamed Morsi, is rethinking his country's relationship with Israel, when an unpredictable civil war is raging just over the Israeli border in Syria and when Iran is continuing its anti-Israel bluster (or at least we hope it's bluster).
The two-state solution has taken a beating in recent years. It's no longer in fashion. But it remains the only viable solution that's been put forward. Instead of scowling, with arms crossed, from their own ends of the playground, the belligerent parties must be persuaded to resume direct talks and get back to the difficult business of building an economically viable, politically stable Palestine that can live alongside a safe and secure Israel.