I used to have two rules that bounded conversations about politics: never talk about abortion, and never talk about the Israeli-Arab conflict. Having ditched the first one a few years back, I guess it's now time to dispense with the second.
After eight days of air attacks, the Israeli Defense Forces launched a ground assault into the Gaza Strip today. Their objective is to uproot Hamas, the governing entity in Gaza that both offers a social service infrastructure and sponsors terror attacks against the Jewish state, most recently rocket firings into southern Israel during (and in repeated violation of) and after a six-month ceasefire that expired in December. Hamas has something like 20,000 men under arms, and Israel's air force evidently had done as much as it could through the air; it's also likely easier to avoid civilian casualties--the crux of the question in the court of world opinion--with a ground attack than through bombing, even precision bombing. Still, the endgame is very much in question, and there is considerable risk of another inconclusive or even counterproductive adventure along the lines of Israel's 1982 and 2006 incursions into Lebanon--both of which seemed only to demonstrate the limits of what Israel's superior conventional forces could do against a nonconventional adversary.
Though the Israelis are doing a somewhat better job this time of explaining themselves to the world than they did in 2006, there's still a decent chance that world opinion, including public opinion in the U.S., ultimately will force a halt to this action. And nobody knows exactly how the incoming Obama administration will approach the question, though there's interesting speculation both ways. Israeli elections, scheduled for February 10, add another layer of complexity to the situation; two leaders in the current unity government, defense minister (and former PM) Ehud Barak of Labor and foreign minister Tzipi Livni of Kadima, are among the leading candidates. (The third is Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, another former prime minister and graduate of Cheltenham High School, my alma mater. We're not exactly super-proud of that one... though compared to other right-leaning morons from the area, including the fucking stupidest guy on the planet, Bibi actually looks almost good.)
What I think is missing from this discussion, though, is the odd but undeniable legacy of violence in the Middle East as a precursor to diplomatic progress. It's happened again and again and again, after instigation from both sides. (This is probably the biggest thing I took away from Righteous Victims, the history of the Zionist-Arab conflict I mentioned recently.) The Yom Kippur War of 1973, launched by Egyptian president Anwar Sadat after Israel ignored his initial attempts to initiate negotiations, directly led to the Camp David Accords that sealed peace between Israel and its most powerful Arab foe. The 1982 incursion into Lebanon was a disaster in most respects for Israel, but it did dislodge (and, arguably, moderate) the PLO and marked the last time Israel and Syria directly fought. And the First Intifada of 1987-93 pushed Israel to enter into serious negotiations with the Palestinians for the first time--setting in motion a chain of events that has led to Fatah control in much of the West Bank and its effective neutrality (or even arguably a faint pro-Israel lean) in the current conflagration.
In every case, someone in a position of authority concluded that the status quo was unacceptable and that action was necessary to break a deadlock; while it can be argued whether the progress was worth the pain, progress did come. So while it certainly can be (and is being) argued that Israel's leaders have overreacted to the rocket attacks from Gaza, or taken a brazen step informed by domestic political considerations, historical precedent suggests a decent chance of progress toward peace when this round of violence stops.
I realize how naive, not to say plain dumb, this probably sounds. To even the reasonably attentive outside observer, the Middle East conflict seems like an endless cycle of combat, an ongoing tragedy of militarized societies driven by their most extreme elements into irreconcilable battle. Compared to a generation ago, however, the progress already recorded is substantial: Israel is at peace with Egypt and Jordan, and is likely within a few years of concluding peace with Syria. Israel now recognizes the Palestinians' right to a homeland and the inescapable logic of the two-state solution; for its part, the Palestinian National Authority has recognized Israel's right to exist.
None of this is to minimize the suffering or excuse the brutality on both sides. But a glimmer of optimism within the general despair might be appropriate.