As the second week of combat ends in the Gaza strip, it still isn't clear what "winning" the war would entail. Unless Israel manages to eradicate Hamas entirely—a deed it was unable to achieve when it actually occupied the territory—the little war will end with both sides repositioning themselves in the rubble, each trying to claim victory.
But Israel and Hamas aren't the only forces with a stake in the conflict. Look beyond that dysfunctional duo, and you'll see some winners and losers already emerging.
Egypt. As Al Jazeera airs gruesome Gazan images and Arab anger intensifies, the region's "moderate" governments are suffering in the court of public opinion. (When Americans discuss the Middle East, moderation is defined not by a nation's domestic policies but by its willingness to make nice with Israel.) The result is instability, especially in Egypt, where the regime shares responsibility for the sad state of the Gazan Palestinians.
By sealing the strip's southern border, Hosni Mubarak's government played a central role in the blockade that preceded the present fighting. Then, once Israel's aerial attacks began, Egypt distinguished itself by shooting Palestinian civilians trying to flee across that border. Now it's facing the country's largest street protests in five years, and the militant Muslim Brotherhood is gaining traction. "I don't normally support the Brotherhood and don't actually like it that much," one secular Egyptian activist told the Media Line News Agency. "But in this situation, without any other actions that can be taken, I will support the Brotherhood and its continuous action against the government and Israel."
The only way such a country could walk away as a winner is by turning the situation on its head and coming up with a diplomatic solution that sticks. Egypt and France have produced a ceasefire proposal, with the Egyptians offering to follow up by hosting peace talks. If any of those efforts lead to genuine gains for ordinary Palestinian people, the moderates will be able to present themselves to their citizens as level-headed saviors. N.B.: Two of the scarcest commodities in the Levant are "a diplomatic solution that sticks" and "genuine gains for ordinary Palestinian people."
Fatah. In the West Bank, the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority has broken up several solidarity demonstrations since combat began. On the fourth day of the Gaza war, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic reported that his friends in Fatah were not just rooting for Israel; their organization "has actually been assisting the Israelis with targeting information." Fatah, you'll recall, was the dominant party in the old Palestine Liberation Organization. Now its violent rivalry with Hamas has grown so bitter that it's willing to side with its oldest enemy in a shooting war.
Under current circumstances, that won't earn the organization much support within the Palestinian public. And unlike Egypt, Fatah can hardly ride to the rescue with a diplomatic solution, though it can do its best to take advantage of whatever diplomacy eventually emerges.
Al Qaeda. In the meantime, it's not as though Hamas and Fatah are the only options for angry Palestinians. Marc Lynch, a political scientist at George Washington University and the author of the influential Abu Aardvark blog, has pointed out one potential beneficiary of the war: Al Qaeda. Like Fatah, bin Laden's loose network has no love for Hamas, which has prevented Al Qaeda–branded jihadists from getting established in the Gaza Strip. Unlike Fatah, Al Qaeda has nothing to gain from appearing to support the Israeli attacks. "Israel's assault on Gaza has really created an almost unbelievable no-lose situation for al-Qaeda," writes Lynch. "If Hamas 'wins', then al-Qaeda gets to share in the benefits of the political losses incurred by its Western and Arab enemies…and can try to take advantage of the political upheavals which could follow. If Hamas 'loses', al-Qaeda still wins. It will shed no tears at seeing one of its bitterest and most dangerous rivals take a beating at Israel's hands or losing control of a government that they have consistently decried as illegitimate and misguided."
Whether or not an organization appears calling itself Al Qaeda in Palestine, the attacks will give a boost to jihadism in general. Mustafa Barghouthi, the preeminent Palestinian voice for nonviolent resistance to the occupation—and a harsh critic of both Hamas and Fatah—worries that the invasion of Gaza will "provoke a new generation of suicide bombers."
America. Come on. Did you really think there was a way we could come out ahead?
While I suspect Israel is shooting itself in the foot with this operation, you can certainly spin scenarios in which it benefits more than it suffers. The U.S., by contrast, is helping finance a war in which we have nothing to gain. Hamas is fighting a local battle for a piece of territory, not a regional crusade to transform the Middle East; unlike Al Qaeda, it poses no threat to America. So why make more enemies around the world by taking sides in these interminable struggles among Israel, Hamas, Fatah, and their neighbors? Do the competing claims to the West Bank and Gaza deserve any more official attention than, say, the competing claims to Kashmir?
A center-left administration is about to take power in Washington; and right now, the conventional wisdom on the center-left says the U.S. should use its influence to bring peace to Palestine, stepping up its diplomatic efforts and attempting to restrain Israel's hard-core hawks. Such a policy would be an improvement over the status quo. But its advocates exaggerate our ability to bring the warring parties together, and they overlook our talent for making yet more enemies with hamfisted diplomatic maneuvers.
A lasting peace will have to emerge from the region itself, ideally without a superpower's hands on the scale. If none of the parties to the conflict are willing to make that peace, we may have to wait for a grassroots movement of fed-up civilians to force their hands. In the meantime, in Israel as in Iraq, the best option for American interests is withdrawal.
Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason magazine.