11/21/2012 02:52 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2013

After the War in Israel and Gaza: The Hope That Remains

The tragic human toll of the latest war between Israel and Hamas, though significantly more lethal in Gaza than in Israel, cannot be reduced to the number of deaths on each side. The tentative nature of the newly brokered truce means that the large proportion of Israelis who reside in the southern part of the country are resigned to a future of rocket fire into their neighborhoods. Further north, in the population centers of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which were both hit by rockets last week, millions more must now adapt to the daily fear of death from the sky. Meanwhile, in Gaza, innocent people who started no war will continue to live in poverty and squalor, with little hope for a better life. They live in isolation, as well -- sealed off from the promise of the dynamic world around them, politically isolated, emotionally drained.

Outsiders to the region who hope to see an end to this conflict need to come to terms with the depth of bitterness and the implausibility of a permanent solution. But others who dismiss all hopes for an arrangement that could ease the situation, at least for a few years, would do well to learn about opportunities that do exist and should be seized. All concerned, in any case, should pull back the lens -- from Israel and Palestine, where so much attention is focused, to the vast region around that tiny place, where changes are afoot with profound implications for Palestinians and Israelis.

It is of course well known that North Africa and the Middle East have changed radically since 2009, when the last Hamas-Israeli war was fought. Three governments have collapsed, including Hosni Mubarak's Egypt, the go-to guarantor of stability throughout the region. Last year's wave of revolutionary fervor has not ebbed. Consider Iran, where seething internal tensions and an international standoff with the West raise the possibility of a domestic revolution, or a regional war, or both. Islamists now in power in Egypt and Tunisia are trying to reconcile their strident, maximalist ideologies with demands for moderation from the international community. They cannot have it both ways; either they satisfy their more radical supporters or accept the logic of the global village. At the same time, they must deliver meaningful benefits to their people. Optimists in the West are fond of pointing out that if Islamists do a poor job governing, they will be voted out of office. But realists in the Arab world see this possibility as cause not for relief but for alarm: If Islamists do lose power, they will likely be replaced not by Arab liberals, but by a more virulent strand of religious ideology.

The situation of the Palestinian territories today is a microcosm of this regional predicament. In Gaza lies an enclave controlled by the sister franchise of the Muslim Brotherhood movement that rules in Tunisia and Egypt. Sworn to Israel's destruction, it holds the people of Gaza hostage to its stubborn refusal to come to terms with the Jewish state and the world's demands. And waiting in the shadows of Gaza are even more militant groups, who consider Hamas leaders to be traitors because they had come to a minimal agreement on a temporary ceasefire with Israel. This pathological combination is meanwhile a world apart from the West Bank enclave under the nominal rule of the Palestinian Authority. Though relatively stable due to economic and security cooperation with Israel, the population regards the ruling clique as irrelevant and corrupt -- and the chances of serious political accommodation between the PA and Hamas are virtually nil. With a Gaza enclave embodying the worst of the region's new Islamist regimes and a West Bank enclave embodying the worst of the region's old incumbent regimes, Palestine today cannot muster the leadership necessary to negotiate with the Jewish state, let alone make the tough decisions that could lead to a peace accord.

Egypt under the Brotherhood, meanwhile, is not in a position to play its traditional role as a mediator between Israel and the two Palestinian cliques. President Morsi does not have the trust of the Israeli leadership, nor will his senior Muslim Brotherhood peers allow him to take the measures necessary to earn that trust. Nor can he apply serious pressure on Hamas -- another red line for most of the prominent members of his movement. And while pressure on Hamas to moderate is not forthcoming from Egypt, pressure on Hamas to adopt extreme positions is indeed forthcoming from Iran, its chief military backer.

So what opportunities are available to improve the situation of Israelis and Palestinians today?

Hope, in this case, begins with an adjustment of expectations. Israel's supporters must come to terms with the likelihood that a peace settlement -- the kind that was envisioned during the early years of the Oslo accords -- will not come to pass in this generation. What may be possible, however, is an extended period of successful conflict management -- based on a concerted effort by new regional players, the Obama administration, and various non-state actors whose assistance has never been sufficiently enlisted.

For starters, a new political base within the region to help mediate and stabilize Israeli and Palestinian life can be found among the monarchies and emirates of North Africa and the Gulf. Witness the Gulf emirate of Qatar, which not only maintains a relationship with the United States and Israel but has also won the trust of Hamas. The emir of Qatar bought himself enormous political capital with the Islamist movement earlier in November by making a historic visit to Gaza and pledging significant humanitarian aid. He enjoys the clout to serve as a broker of a "hudna" or "truce," in accordance with traditional Islamic principles that would be acceptable to Hamas and tolerable to Israel. Consider as well the example of Morocco, which has long maintained warm relations with Moroccan Jewish communities in Israel and around the world. During the recent war in Gaza, Moroccan king Mohammed VI sent a mobile hospital to the embattled enclave to tend to Palestinian civilians who had been wounded. It was one gesture among many in recent years that demonstrate the king's desire to help both sides, both as individual parties and as two peoples who must come to terms. And years ahead of the Arab spring, the new and current king, Mohammed VI, initiated his own approach toward democratization -- holding regular local and parliamentary elections, securing the rights of women and religious minorities (especially Jews), fostering civil society, supporting political reform, and ultimately rewriting the constitution to split power with an elected prime minister. These last positive steps are the envy of the neighborhood today, while Morocco's larger track record has created a region-wide footprint for the kingdom as well as a strategic alliance with the United States. Influential voices across the Arab world -- from the Gulf to the Levant to North Africa -- are calling for Morocco to fill this vacuum and reclaim its historic place as a broker of peace and security

But brokering rapprochement is not the business of governments alone. Non-state actors such as transnational non-profit organizations and moderate religious movements have made yeoman efforts to build bridges among Gazans, West Bankers, and Israelis. Witness the U.S.-based Search for Common Ground, which has been building programs designed to facilitate people-to-people relations for years. Consider the power of Jewish and Muslim religious leaderships to facilitate meaningful connections between the two faiths: In New York City, a youth movement of the American Jewish Committee called "Access" has engaged rabbis and Muslim clerics; Palestinians, Israelis, and even Qataris. Each of these projects, and many others like it, is modest on its own -- but in the aggregate, if brought together, they can be a formidable force for good. Yet no political leadership has yet attempted to harness the collective energies of non-state actors in the Israeli-Palestinian realm.

To bundle together various Arab heads of state, spiritual groups, non-profits, and other elements in a full-court press to ease the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a challenge of political leadership that requires creativity and risk-taking. It is messy, thankless, and does not promise the reward of a lasting peace. But it is a project worth undertaking. Muslims in the Arab world, as well as many Jews I know, hope that the second Obama administration, freed from its final electoral campaign, will be able to provide such leadership.