ISRAEL AND HAMAS appeared Tuesday to be edging toward the least bad finish to a week of fighting — a cease-fire that would stop the rockets and bombs. Both sides seemed open to mediation by Egypt and the United States because they believed they had achieved some short-term objectives — and because a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip by Israel was the painful and risky alternative.
If that is the outcome, Hamas could emerge with the biggest gains. Having provoked Israel with rocket and mortar fire and a border ambush, the Islamist movement survived what was intended as a strategic coup — the killing of its military leader and the destruction of most of its best Iranian-built missiles in an initial Israeli wave of airstrikes.
On Tuesday, despite the bombing of more than 1,500 targets in Gaza, Hamas was still able to fire scores of rockets, including strikes on the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem suburbs. In so doing, it answered a challenge from rival, Iranian-sponsored groups in Gaza; it won public support from the region’s Islamist governments; it upstaged the rival Palestinian Authority in the West Bank; and it provided Iran and Syria with a badly needed respite from mounting international pressure. If there is a truce, it could win an easing of the blockade on Gaza, by Israel or by Egypt.
For its part, Israel could claim that it had significantly reduced the missile threat from Gaza and, if a cease-fire takes hold, offered its civilians the prospect of a break from attacks. It also demonstrated that it will not be deterred by the turmoil in the Arab world from taking on enemies such as Hamas — and that it can do so with the full, public support of the United States.
For both sides, the biggest prize in the fight was the alignment of Egypt’s new government, which unlike the former military-backed autocracy is sympathetic to Hamas but which also wishes to preserve its peace with Israel and good relations with the United States. To his credit, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood plunged into the crisis, dispatching his prime minister to Gaza and speaking repeatedly by telephone with President Obama — even while lambasting Israel in public. A cease-fire would represent a notable achievement for Mr. Morsi; Israel can hope that it leads to a restraining influence by Cairo on Hamas. In contrast, a breakdown of diplomacy and an Israeli ground invasion could place a dangerous strain on a peace treaty that has been the foundation of the U.S.-sponsored security order in the region.
Mr. Obama was phoning Cairo and Jerusalem from Asia, where he is on a tour designed to underline his strategy of pivoting U.S. attention and resources to China and its neighbors. For her part, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was obliged to leave an East Asian summit meeting to help broker a cease-fire. The disruptions were a reminder that Mr. Obama’s Asia strategy, while attractive in theory, will not spare the United States from the real-world challenges of a changing Middle East. To preserve vital U.S. interests, Mr. Obama will have to stay focused on the region.