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For Israel, it's different this time

Until this year, the world would have been looking at the intensifying armed confrontation between Israel and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip with a sense of deja vu all over again.

But this is 2012, and the political map of the Middle East has changed dramatically in ways that make the Israel-Gaza confrontation far more dangerous for every country in the region, especially those that border Israel and Palestine. Great danger also exists for the United States and Europe in the latest confrontation.

But mostly, life's more dangerous for Israel, not because of the existential threat from Palestinian rockets but because Israeli leaders have consistently obstructed and resisted arrangements that would have brought a dignified peace to the region. And while the leadership and much of Israel's population accepted and advanced these conditions that make life so intolerable for Palestinians, Israelis have been basking in a pool of complacency that's quite astonishing given the differences that exist today compared to just two years ago.

Hosni Mubarak, with whom Israel and the United States were so comfortable, no longer runs Egypt. The new Egyptian ruler following Mr. Mubarak's downfall, Mohamed Morsi, heads a regime directly tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas in Gaza is a Palestinian branch. For more than 30 years since Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt, Israel has been able to act with impunity against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and the Lebanese to the north. That no longer holds true. The Egyptians are trying to help negotiate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, but the heart of the new Egyptian regime is with Hamas.

Lebanon is still under the thumb of Hezbollah, the Shiite Islamic fundamentalists who share Hamas' stated ambition to eliminate the Jewish state and which has its own arsenal of rockets pointed at Israel.

Next to Lebanon along Israel's northern border, there is Syria itself, where President Bashar Assad, like his equally tyrannical father, Hafez, has scrupulously maintained a ceasefire with Israel dating to the end of the 1973 war. But the Assad regime will not survive the bloody chaos that's already left more than 35,000 dead in Syria. And no one can say for certain who and what will be running Syria after Mr. Assad's inevitable downfall. Might it be a Sunni-dominated regime with strong ties to such states as Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf countries and other big bankrollers of jihadist movements?

Then there is Jordan, the Hashemite kingdom that borders Israel and the Palestinian territories, the only other Arab country that has a peace treaty with Israel. King Abdullah II is not a popular monarch. Demonstrations against the government have been underway for weeks in a country that has produced a couple of al-Qaida's most vicious leaders and where the Muslim Brotherhood has a large following.

In past confrontations between Israel and the Palestinians, or between Israel and the Lebanese, none of these scenarios existed. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government seems to be acting as if nothing has changed.

No one would challenge Mr. Netanyahu's declaration that Israel has a right and a duty to protect itself and its citizens from the rocket attacks launched from Gaza that have already killed three Israelis and wounded many more.

However, there is good reason to question why the Israeli security branch decided that last Wednesday was a good time to assassinate Ahmed al Jabari, the Hamas military leader in Gaza. The latest escalation in Gaza launches came in retaliation for the assassination. But a prominent Israeli actively involved in back channel negotiations with the Hamas leadership through Egyptian intermediaries has reported that the very day Jabari was assassinated he was looking over an innovative draft proposal for an enduring ceasefire between Hamas and Israel.

"This draft was agreed upon by me and Hamas' deputy foreign minister ... when we met last week in Egypt," the "unofficial" Israeli negotiator, Gershon Baskin, wrote in an article in the New York Times last week. "Mr. Jabari was ... prepared to agree to a long-term cease-fire."

Israel had plenty of reason to assassinate Jabari, who was the commander in charge of bringing weapons into Gaza and deciding when to use them. But the timing of his assassination seems to have been counterproductive, to say the least.

A cynical explanation would be that Israel has an election coming in January and Mr. Netanyahu needs to burnish his credentials as the no-nonsense hardliner who is willing to bomb Gaza and target the Hamas leadership, no matter how many innocent lives are lost in the process.

An election would be a good time for a discussion in Israel on the impact of the nation's long-standing policies in the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon in the emergence of an increasingly radical and Islamic fundamentalist enemy. It's unlikely, though. Discussions like that don't happen while bombs and rockets are falling.

But has it occurred to Mr. Netanyahu that this is exactly what Hamas wants? One could assert that Hamas' latest round of rocket attacks against Israel was "suicidal." To which the most aggressive in Hamas might reply, "Correct. Suicide is what we do." And this time Egypt and other regional states, including U.S. NATO ally Turkey, are out there supporting Hamas in ways that would have been inconceivable less than two years ago.

After Gaza is leveled this time, possibly re-occupied, the Palestinian population — more than 1.7 million people, trapped in one of the world's most densely populated pieces of real estate — will still be there, more embittered, more enraged, more radicalized, and more universally supported. It will be difficult for Hamas' rival in the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority, to keep resisting demands for a return to "armed struggle," aroused by the day-to-day humiliation and indignity heaped upon Palestinians by Israeli policies.

Not for their sake, but for its own sake, Israel, with the help of it's allies in Washington and the capitals of Europe, has to develop an alternative way to peaceful survival.

The moderate Jewish-American group J Street said as much in a statement last week: "Military force alone is inadequate as a response to the broader strategic challenge Israel faces. Only a political resolution to the century-old conflict with the Palestinians resulting in two states living side by side can end the conflict."

Or, as Gideon Levy, a prominent Israeli journalist put it in an article in the Israeli mass circulation daily Ha'aretz: "Israel arrived at the current round of this endless cycle of bloodshed at yet another peak of denial of the existence of the Palestinian people. ... The time has come for diplomacy and for ending the occupation, the time for bombing is over."

G. Jefferson Price III was foreign editor of The Baltimore Sun from 1991 to 2001 and Middle East correspondent for the newspaper in the 1970s and 1980s. His email is gjeffersonprice@yahoo.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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