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Israelis, Palestinians in game with no end

By Aaron Miller
updated 8:08 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
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.

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