The most the world can now hope for out of current events in the Arab-Israeli conflict is the kind of pause or ceasefire that comes from exhaustion or the temporary intimidation of one side. Hizbollah and Hamas may be forced to back down, but only for a while. Even if they do agree to some form of ceasefire, they can still go on attacking Israel using proxies or claiming “misunderstandings” or accidents.

It is now all too clear that the war of attrition between the Palestinians and Israel that began in September 2000 unleashed a “war process” that will be difficult to turn into any kind of peace process for years to come. The death of Yassir Arafat clearly solved nothing. The weak, corrupt and divided Palestinian Authority he left behind cannot be fixed by a handful of good leaders. Hamas may not reflect a Palestinian majority, but it and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad have much better internal discipline and are widely seen as an alternative to a hopeless peace process.

It never made sense for Israel to expect any gratitude for leaving Gaza. It clearly withdrew because it was to Israel’s overwhelming advantage to do so. The settlers in Gaza were a drain on the national budget and the Israeli Defence Force. As was the case with Lebanon, the IDF was widely seen as defeated, and the Israeli government as having been forced to attack by a war of attrition. Hamas and the PIJ, like Hizbollah before them, may not have been winners in any real sense, but many radical young Palestinians perceived them as such.

Israel made things worse by not having a post-withdrawal plan to give economic options and hope to the people it left behind in Gaza. Its small withdrawals from settlements in Gaza and the most exposed areas of the West Bank did not conceal the steady buildup of other settlements, and the growth of the Israel security barrier far to the east of the 1967 boundary.

The constant exchange on both sides of settlements for terrorism since the 1993 Oslo accords accelerated – not slowed – after Arafat’s death and Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. The election of Hamas, following divisions in the mainstream Fatah faction, both illustrated the dangers of democracy without a stable political foundation and that the Palestinians could not be a real peace partner. So, however, did Israeli unilateralism, internal political disarray and reliance on isolation of the Palestinians.

Israel’s efforts to force Hamas to change its call for the abolition of Israel and drive Hamas from political power simply made things worse. Isolated and impoverished Palestinians became more extreme; Iran, Syria and outside extremists gained more footholds; and the PA’s new leader, Mahmoud Abbas, became weaker.Israel’s extraordinary sensitivity to casualties and hostages made it vulnerable in other ways. The IDF invasion of Gaza and new attacks on Hamas further radicalised younger and more militant Palestinians and they – not politicians or their parents – have the guns and ability to carry out attacks.

No one can determine exactly why Hizbollah got into the act. It certainly saw an opportunity to try to demonstrate its commitment to the Arab cause. It saw the US as weaker and less decisive because of Iraq, and had largely worked out agreements with Lebanon’s Christians that recognised it as the one militia that could keep its arms and that the Lebanese army would remain largely passive in south Lebanon. Ideology, opportunism and anger may all have been factors, alongside the fact that Israel made massive prisoner releases the last time Hizbollah took hostages and once again had appeared to be “defeated”.

Syria and Iran, however, may have had their own agenda. Provoking Israel creates a natural division between the US, as Israel’s ally, and Europe. It distracts from Syria’s crimes in Lebanon and Iran’s nuclear programmes. Every Israeli action against Arabs feeds Arab anger against the US, undermines its influence in the Persian Gulf region and in gaining Arab support to force a full United Nations investigation into Syria. Pushing or encouraging Hizbollah action offers advantages with few risks. Lebanon’s losses are a victory for Iran and Syria, another form of asymmetric war. Added Hizbollah dependence makes it a better potential proxy. Finding a new way to feed Palestinian radicalism makes Hamas and the PIJ more dependent, and young Palestinians more open to outside influence.

Israel may or may not have played into the hands of Hamas, Hizbollah, Iran and Syria. The scale of its escalation showed it could not be trapped into massive prisoner swaps, but it has also almost certainly radicalised many more young Palestinians and Arabs. Even if Palestinians and/or Hizbollah are intimidated into a ceasefire, the radicals are likely to benefit from Israel’s actions. It is also clear that rockets, second fronts, tunnels and other measures can at least partially defeat Israel’s security barriers, and new attacks can begin at any time.

Both sides can escalate the war process. The problem is that neither Israel nor the Palestinians can really win; their values and goals are steadily diverging, and any final settlement is less and less likely. The Israeli-Palestinian war of attrition since September 2000 will continue to escalate to nowhere; outside diplomacy will accomplish nothing real because there is no bargain acceptable to both sides, and the Israeli and Palestinian centre not only cannot hold, it cannot move forward. Worse, Hizbollah and Iranian, Syrian and Islamist extremists can all play a spoiler role at any time, and broaden the conflict at minimal risk, attacking both the US and Israel indirectly with considerable safety.

If there is to be any real hope, two things have to happen. First, the UN has to help Lebanon actually disarm Hizbollah, stop it from receiving further arms from Iran and Syria and prevent it sending military aid to Hamas. Brokering a ceasefire and another hollow UN peacekeeping force will have a short-term cosmetic impact, at best. Second, the Quartet group of Middle East mediators – the US, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations – should break its near silence to put major pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians: on Israel, to halt unilateral expansion into the West Bank and aid moderate Palestinian voices such as Mr Abbas; and on the Palestinians, to understand that aid and support are tied to either Hamas changing or going. This must be followed by a “road map” that confronts both sides with a true peace plan, specific final settlement proposals and time schedule – a plan over which the Quartet members unite and constantly pressure both sides to adopt. Half measures and conventional diplomacy in the current situation have all the value of putting lipstick on a pig and will be neither Halal nor Kosher.

Anthony Cordesman will answer your questions in a live online Q&A on Thursday at 3pm BST. Post him a question now

The writer is chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and has just authored a new report on Iran’s support of Hizbollah (CSIS, 2006)

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