Palestinian militants and Israeli forces continue to trade attacks, but the scattered warfare has remained well inside Israel and the occupied territories. The United States and Arab neighbors have good reason not to become involved. With the decision now between negotiation and degenerating violence, both sides may move slowly toward the negotiating table.
In 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973, Israel — surrounded by belligerent forces — saw its very existence at stake. That is not the case today. With U.S. encouragement, Egypt and Jordan have opted to stay out of the current crisis.
Unlike in previous wars, Egypt cannot look to the Soviet Union to keep the United States from entering the fray, or to rearm Egypt following a defeat. Egypt now receives much of its trade and $2 billion in aid annually from the United States. Washington has sweetened the pot during the past month with offers to provide Egypt with 100 M1A1 tanks and a computerized mission planning system for the Egyptian air force.
Jordan also depends on Washington, which recently sent the commander of the U.S. Central Command to Amman to discuss security cooperation. Jordan's military, barely adequate to maintain internal security, is unprepared for a war with Israel. More important, it is unprepared for the flood of Palestinian refugees such a conflict would generate.
With these two countries taken out of the equation, Syria is not prepared to face Israel alone. Its arms are outdated and deteriorating, and its military is focused on securing Syrian control of Lebanon. Though Damascus retains good relations with Moscow, Russian aid is limited and slow in arriving.
The Palestinians then cannot count on an Arab Legion coming to their rescue. There will be no liberation. The Palestinian Authority could settle into another grinding intifada, but this time they have something to lose: the political and territorial gains they've made since the Oslo peace accords.
And given Israel's decapitation strategy, Palestinian leaders also face the possibility of their own demise. A war of attrition, with no hope of rescue, and a better-armed and organized Israeli military spell defeat for the Palestinian Authority. This leaves negotiation as the Palestinian's last remaining option.
For Israel, its neighbors' abstention from the conflict means its existence is not at stake. The Israeli leadership does not feel pressured either to reoccupy Palestinian territories or to launch pre-emptive strikes against Palestinian allies. For the time being, Israel can afford to grind away slowly at the Palestinians, such as through targeted assassinations, and wait for them to break.
Israel cannot tolerate this conflict forever though, as its business and investment are slowly becoming crippled. But neither is the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon completely free to break the cycle of violence through a heightened militarily offensive. Washington has clearly expressed its interest in the stability of neighboring states and will not support the actions necessary for an outright Israeli victory against the Palestinians. Though it can wait longer than the Palestinians, Israel is also being pressed slowly to the negotiating table.
Overall, isolation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has left both sides with a choice between endemic violence and grudging negotiation. As neither is in a position to win decisively, their only alternative is to move toward negotiations.
Two wild cards remain, however, that could destabilize the situation. Though Syria is not prepared to go to war alone against Israel, it fears a pre-emptive Israeli attack and so has turned to Iraq for defensive support. This is a dangerous gambit, as Baghdad has reason to generate a military crisis with Israel.
The United States is monitoring Syria and Iraq more intensely, and Israel on Aug. 24 asked Washington to assure Syria that it does not intend to open a new front in its conflict with the Palestinians. The question remains whether the United States could or would launch a pre-emptive strike to keep Iraq out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Sharon also still has advisers who argue that the problem for Israel is not one for today but in the future. As nothing guarantees that Israel's neighbors will be forever passive, and the Palestinian population grows faster than Israel's, avoiding a conflict today may only postpone it. The United States must see whether it can convince Sharon that seeking a final solution to the Palestinian problem would be utterly unacceptable to even Israel's staunchest ally.
Matthew Baker is a senior analyst for STRATFOR, the global intelligence company. For more information about STRATFOR, click here.