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Opinion This is a war Israel can’t win

Jacob Simona stands by his burning car, which was set ablaze during clashes in Lod, Israel, on May 11. (Heidi Levine/AP)

The peace movement slogan “War is not the answer” is not always right. Sometimes — as in the struggle against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan — war is the only answer. But that bromide certainly applies to the current conflict between Israel and Hamas. However long Hamas continues rocketing Israel, and however long Israel continues bombing the Gaza Strip, this war will achieve nothing except a swift return to the status quo ante bellum.

That’s not a message that pro-Israel uber-hawks want to hear, but it’s the truth. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) claims that “handwringing calls for a ceasefire are tantamount to Hamas propaganda.” He wants Israel to “destroy Hamas’s war machine” and argues “the U.S. should provide it with the time, space, and resources to do so.”

How is that going to work exactly? Israel and Hamas are currently embroiled in their fourth major war since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Israel has not come close to destroying “Hamas’s war machine” in the previous three occasions, and it will not be any more successful now. Indeed, Hamas has already fired more than half as many rockets over the past week — more than 2,800 — than it did during the seven weeks of the 2014 conflict.

Israel cannot possibly defeat Hamas from the air, but it has no desire to risk another ground incursion into the Gaza Strip like the one in 2014. That operation sent casualties soaring on both sides — 2,251 Palestinians were killed (1,462 of them civilians) along with 67 Israeli soldiers and six civilians — but did not achieve any lasting strategic gains. Israel has even less desire to reoccupy the Gaza Strip, which would involve fighting an even more costly and protracted counterinsurgency against Hamas.

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At most, Israel is trying to temporarily degrade Hamas and deter it from further hostilities for a few years. Israel may have no other choice when its cities are under rocket attack, but it is an entirely arbitrary judgment to decide how many Palestinians have to die and how many buildings have to be blown up to make Israel’s point: Don’t mess with us.

Likewise, Hamas is not trying to defeat Israel. Its rocket salvos are designed to increase its political standing among West Bank Palestinians at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of Gaza Strip Palestinians. Hamas will agree to a cease-fire once it has made its point: Don’t mess with us either.

As many commentators have pointed out, Hamas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu need one another. Both sides thrive when they have an enemy they can easily demonize. Hamas rationalizes its attacks on Israel by citing the struggle against Zionist “colonialism.” Israel rationalizes its attacks on the Gaza Strip by citing the struggle against Islamist “terrorists.”

Both sides are likely to emerge from the current war with enhanced prestige from having struck symbolic, if utterly ineffectual, blows against their hated enemies. Netanyahu may even achieve his true objective — to stay in office and avoid a corruption conviction — but he is not going to win any broader strategic victory for Israel. Nor, in all likelihood, does he really want to. From his perspective, having Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip is convenient. It frees him of any obligation to make any concessions to the Palestinians that would be anathema to his right-wing coalition partners. He can simply say he refuses to deal with terrorists, and he’s off the hook.

Israelis may figure that they can keep going like this indefinitely because occasional rocket barrages — 90 percent of them intercepted by the Iron Dome missile-defense system — are hardly an existential threat. Israelis have reason to feel good about their country, which has emerged as an economic and military superpower in the Middle East. More Arab countries have even been recognizing the Jewish state. But the current hostilities should serve as a reminder that Israel can never be a “normal” country, as most of its citizens desperately want, while the Palestinian conflict continues to smolder.

The most menacing aspect of the latest violence is that it has spread to Israel proper. The last week has seen the worst communal violence between Jews and Arabs since the days when Palestine was a British colony in the 1930s. Netanyahu is reaping what he has sowed by appealing to anti-Arab prejudice to win votes, making common cause with far-right Jewish extremists, and passing a nation-state law that enshrines Israeli Arabs as second-class citizens. He may just have provoked an internal intifada.

Once the bombs and rockets stop falling, the Israeli government will have some major fence-mending to do with its nearly 1.9 million Arab citizens (20 percent of the population). Israel would also be well-advised to make concessions, such as stopping evictions in East Jerusalem and settlement growth in the West Bank, to bolster the moderate Palestinian Authority at the expense of the more radical Hamas.

At the end of the day, Israel will not defeat the Palestinians militarily. It needs to reach a political accommodation with them.

Read more:

Henry Olsen: The left-wing divide on Israel-Palestine is going to be a problem for Joe Biden

The Post’s View: After a bloody weekend, Israel needs a cease-fire as much as Hamas

Jennifer Rubin: When do Hamas and Israel reach the beginning of the end?

Gershom Gorenberg: Israelis and Palestinians can’t go on like this. Weep for us.

Rashid Khalidi: What we’re seeing now is just the latest chapter in Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians