What if there is no solution? With the war in Gaza slipping into an uneasy truce, peacemakers will now descend on the Middle East. That includes George Mitchell, President Obama's special envoy to the region.
No, not if we listen to what Palestinian leaders say and write, especially in Arabic and with no CNN team around. It's one state from the "river to the sea," and the blood-curdling oratory is not just anti-Israel, it is eliminationist anti-Semitic echoing Hitler and Himmler. This is not hyperbole. Just read the daily compilation in English on www.memri.org and recoil in horror. But let's be statesmanlike about this ("you know, the flowery language of the Arabs") and look at the strategic games both sides play. Double-statehood is not the first prize in this game, alas.
In 2005, Israel withdrew from Gaza. Our man from Mars would have thought: Now is the time for the Palestinians to really build a state, as they couldn't previously when Yasser Arafat was in charge and the Israeli army in place. Instead, the Palestinians elected Hamas, which thrust the three no's at Israel: no recognition, no negotiation, no acceptance (of the Oslo Accords).
The "conversation" was not about statehood but about will. It was Kassam time, with Hamas firing the missiles and Israel tightening the blockade. This is known, in the media vernacular, as a "spiral of violence." But if the missiles were the answer to the blockade, why did Hamas target the border passages and the power plant next door that supplied Gaza with electricity?
So much irrationality makes perfect sense if we posit a different strategic game. Hamas's object is provoking Israel to prove that it doesn't care about the consequences. Indeed, it wants bad things to happen to its own people. This will mobilize the "Arab street" and the world's media against Israel while demonstrating its absolute imperviousness to pain and threats of more. "Bring it on," is great for Hamas's credibility, pride and honor, but for the purpose of statehood, it would behave very differently. It would wheel and deal, cajole and dissimulate. It would play quid pro quo, not Kassams against F-16s.
Naturally, Israel couldn't allow Hamas to dictate the rules, and so it began to ready a massive counterstrike by last summer. Hamas miscalculated in 2008 as Hezbollah did in 2006. Each thought it could humiliate and cow Mr. Big without triggering retaliation. Recall Hezbollah chief Nasrallah, who admitted that he never would have authorized forays into Israel if he had foreseen the reaction. Hamas was unluckier still, for Israel was a lot more successful in Gaza than in southern Lebanon in 2006.
For Israel, the object was "never again." Never again would it allow deterrence to lapse, or its reputation for swift and efficient military force to suffer. With the country's credibility restored, you might ask: Isn't this precisely the moment for another Annapolis or Taba, where Arafat extracted even better terms than at Camp David in 2000? Alas, the Abba Ebban cliché about the Palestinians never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity is true.
The reason is that double-statehood is not their No. 1 priority. They want it all, and if they can't get it, they would rather nurse their honor, pride and sense of righteous victimhood than engage in the sordid business of compromise. At any rate, the simple two-state solution is now off the table. Most Israelis (minus the settlers and their supporters) have come around to two states. But never again will Israel vacate territory (as in Gaza) without making sure that it won't turn into a strategic springboard against the heartland. Never again will Israel relinquish control over a border like the Philadelphi Corridor that served as entry point for Iranian missiles into Gaza. It will insist on a strategic presence in the Jordan Valley.
Nor can Israel yield military control over the West Bank. What a twist of fate. Today, it is the Israeli Defense Force that guarantees the survival of Fatah and President Mahmoud Abbas against Hamas, Jihad and their Iranian sponsors. Here is the bitter irony. Fatah might want to make peace, but doesn't have the power to deliver; Hamas has the power, but it doesn't want peace, dreaming about a "final solution" that wipes Israel off this part of the map.
This is why the Obama administration is looking at yet another disappointment. The upside is that today Palestine is less than ever the "core" of the Middle East conflict. The real issue is Iran and its reach for regional hegemony. The conventional wisdom has it that peace for Palestine would weaken Tehran's mischief potential, robbing it of a rallying point for the Arab masses. Actually, it is the other way round. Iran will use its power, through its proxies, to demolish whatever deal might be hashed out by Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
For Iran's game is not a two-state solution, let alone peace. Rather, its object is to intimidate America's Arab supporters and to eliminate Israel as America's strongest regional ally. So for the Obama administration, Israel/Palestine has become an intractable sideshow on a vastly enlarged stage that extends from Haifa to Herat.
American (and European) good offices should be designed to manage rather than to solve a conflict that still defies solution. The object of intercession ought to be a stable truce. Preventing another eruption means closing off all conduits for offensive weaponry. The U.S. and the European Union can offer Hamas a benign tit for tat: Stop the terror and gain wondrous economic benefits like copious investments and easier movement of goods and people -- provided the money doesn't again disappear in the pockets of the Palestinian leadership, as it did in Arafat's days.
It took Israel 40 years to push Fatah from terrorism to teeth-gnashing acceptance. The Levant will be a lot happier place if Hamas turns out to be a faster learner.
Mr. Joffe is publisher-editor of Die Zeit, and a fellow at the Institute for International Studies and the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford University.