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From Gaza to Where?

CANBERRA – The wisest words on the Second Gaza War may have come from an Israeli living in a kibbutz near the Gaza border. “If you want to defend me… Don’t send the Israel Defense Forces for us in order to ‘win,’” Michal Vasser wrote in Haaretz on November 15. “Start thinking about the long term and not just about the next election. Try to negotiate until white smoke comes up through the chimney. Hold out a hand to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Stop with the ‘pinpoint assassinations’ and look into the civilians’ eyes on the other side as well.”

Israel is, of course, entitled to defend itself from rocket attacks. But the lesson of the last two decades is that attacks stop, and intifadas do not start, when there is a prospect of peace – and that, when there is no such prospect, Palestinian militancy is uncontainable.

The chances of a comprehensive and sustainable two-state settlement now being negotiated with Mahmoud Abbas’s West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA) – and of its acceptance, albeit grudgingly, by Gaza’s Hamas after a popular vote – may be slim and receding. But the only alternative is an endlessly recurring cycle of deadly violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

The immediate priority is to calm and stabilize the situation in Gaza. But if there are not to be more and even worse eruptions, Israeli policymakers need to ask themselves some fundamental questions. So, too, must their rusted-on supporters in the United States and countries like mine.

How is peace fostered if the elimination or dramatic diminution of Hamas’s capability leaves Gaza in the hands of even more militant groups, and gives Islamists throughout the region another recruitment tool?

How is Israel’s national security served when, by its action in Gaza and inaction with Abbas, it jeopardizes its longstanding and hard-won peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan (both now looking very fragile indeed in the aftermath of the Arab Spring)?

How can Israel’s preferred Palestinian leaders, Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, be left with any credible capacity to negotiate if talks cannot begin until, as Israel insists, they retreat on their minimum condition of a settlement freeze in the Occupied Territories?

For all that Israel downplays its significance, the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 still offers a critically important deal: full normalization of relations by the entire Arab world in exchange for a comprehensive peace settlement. How long can this Arab League position be sustained with peace talks going nowhere?

Another big question for Israel is whether it can accept the consequences if a two-state solution disappears completely from the agenda. Israel, as founding father David Ben-Gurion warned, can be a Jewish state, it can be a democratic state, and it can be a state occupying the whole of historical Israel; but it cannot be all three.

According to the CIA World Factbook, Jews currently outnumber non-Jews, by 6.4 million to 5.6 million, in the total area of historical Palestine. But, with a much lower birthrate and declining immigration, it is only a matter of time before Jews are in a minority.

With Gaza still smoldering, yet another burning question is waiting in the wings. What are Israel and its supporters supposed to gain by bitterly resisting the United Nations General Assembly resolution recognizing Palestine as a non-member “observer state” (with a status like the Vatican), which now seems bound to be introduced, and passed by a huge international majority, on or around November 29?

The text of the draft resolution now in circulation contains no offensive language. It makes clear both that full UN membership remains to be determined and that final-status issues like borders, refugees, Jerusalem, and security all remain to be negotiated. True, passage of this resolution might give Palestine some standing that it now lacks to seek prosecutions in the International Criminal Court for alleged violations of international law. But the ICC is not a kangaroo court, and allegations without substance can be expected to be treated accordingly.

Palestinian statehood has always been an indispensable requirement of Israel’s own long-term peace and security, and it is overwhelmingly in Israel’s interest to defuse rather than further inflame the issue. This need has become more urgent than ever in view of the new realities of power in the region.

In short, Israel should treat the UN vote not as an excuse for renewed confrontation, but as an opportunity for a fresh start to serious negotiations. The US reaction is key: Rather than punishing the PA, and maybe the UN as well, it should use the resolution to propose the kind of diplomatic circuit-breaker for which the world has long been hoping.

Of course, to put on the table a comprehensive settlement plan that addresses all of the final-status issues, with compromises that all sides could be persuaded and pressured to accept, would require statesmanship. Unhappily, that quality has been agonizingly absent from Middle East diplomacy for almost as long as anyone can remember.

Read more from our "Palestine Goes Global" Focal Point.