Potential in Middle East for a disaster is too great to ignore

President Barack Obama repeated over the weekend a past statement that Israel has a right to defend itself against hundreds of missile attacks that have been launched against it from Gaza. The danger in that declaration of support is that it allows room for Israel’s most right-wing elements to define the lengths to which they will go in the cause of “defense.”

And so, on a day the Israeli military carried out dozens of airstrikes while naval forces bombarded targets along Gaza’s Mediterranean coast, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued to talk about escalating the conflict with an incursion of ground troops into Gaza. A similar offensive four years ago left hundreds of civilians dead, many of them children, which is inevitable in an impoverished strip of land where large, young families are the norm.

While Netanyahu’s threat is troublesome, it is even more alarming that Hamas, the anti-Israel political movement that won elections in Gaza in 2006, continues to aggravate Israel and endanger Israelis by firing ever-more-powerful missiles ever deeper into Israel.

Speculating on motives

While Israel can realistically talk about the possibility of decapitating the Hamas leadership through aggressive military action, Hamas knows that it can inflict at most collateral damage on Israel with its missile attacks. So what is the point? To seek political advantage on the international stage, hoping to further marginalize Israel, even with its allies? To promote solidarity among Arab and other Middle Eastern allies? To force Israel to expose its anti-missile technology and to expend its military resources, perhaps to the advantage off other enemies of Israel, such as Iran and Syria? Regardless of the motives, Hamas is obviously willing to risk the lives of Gazans — adults and children — using them as cannon fodder in a battle that they know they cannot win militarily.

Just as dangerous are those on the Israeli side who are giving voice to battle plans that would be aimed not at Hamas leaders, with inevitable but limited collateral damage — but at the civilian population as primary targets.

Gilad Sharon wrote in an op-ed column in the Jerusalem Post that, “We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza.” He compared such a strategy to the U.S. response to Japan when it dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sharon is the son of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was responsible for pulling Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005.

As of this writing, 73 Palestinians, including 37 civilians, as well as three Israeli civilians have died in the last five days. That toll is bound to increase before any cease-fire can be negotiated. But it will skyrocket if this becomes a ground war.

While the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations have tried for years to broker a peace agreement, it is incumbent on the U.N. to take the lead at this critical point in seeking a cease-fire.

Complicating factors

There are no easy answers to the hostilities of the Middle East. The enmity exhibited by Israel’s neighbors is real and the threat to its existence palpable. At the same time, Israel’s continued pursuit of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — even over the protestations of friends such as the United States and some members of the EU — send a distinct message that Israel’s present leadership has no interest in a two-state solution.

Whether or not U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon can negotiate a cease-fire, it is going to become necessary for President Obama to take a position beyond his statement that Israel has a right to defend itself. That will be interesting to watch, given that Netanyahu injected himself to an unprecedented level in the 2012 presidential election, giving his endorsement to Obama’s losing challenger, Mitt Romney.

That said, the looming crisis should transcend recent partisan politics.

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