Adrian Hamilton: Gaza conflict is in both sides' interest

T here's a simple explanation for Israel's decision to raise the stakes in Gaza. Because it can. It has military superiority. And it knows the act has no consequences, at least internationally. President Obama turned aside, saying he quite understood Israel's reasons but hoped it would try to avoid civilian casualties. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, made clear which side the UK was on, declaring that "Hamas bears principal responsibility for the current crisis".

Even Egypt, while condemning Israel's air attacks, was cautious in response, whilst there are not a few Palestinians on the West Bank who would quite like to see Hamas receive a drubbing. The only real consequence was the one we saw yesterday, when three Israelis were killed in a hail of more than 70 rockets fired from Gaza. But then that, too, could suit the purposes of Benjamin Netanyahu. The more the conflict escalates, the harder will be the Israeli response and the more Israel will feel itself a nation assaulted as the Prime Minister goes into a general election in two months' time.

And so it goes on, as it has done since Israel gave up its occupation of the Gaza strip in 2005. And so it will no doubt keep going on for a long time yet. It does so because, for all the pain it inflicts, it is politically beneficial to both sides.

Given peace, Hamas's support might well fall among Palestinians desperate for a better future. Given war, they will rally round Hamas as the only organisation able to stand up to Israel and hurt them back.

But then peace is not seen as being in Israel's interests either. It gave up the occupation of Gaza not because it wanted a viable separate Palestine, but because it knew it couldn't continue direct occupation of a people whose numbers could overwhelm it. Controlling borders, disrupting trade, assassinating leaders is a form of occupation by other means. Continuous conflict in Gaza helps to ensure that the division between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas gets even deeper and the prospect of any viable Palestinian state gets pushed further and further away.

Unleashing the bombers in a climate of continual and rising rocket attacks on your population is an obvious response of any government facing election. That's how Israel got propelled into an outright invasion in 2009. But it also has its uses for an administration facing more isolation within the Arab Spring, the election of a Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt and a Hamas which has received the support from the ruler of Qatar.

Whatever else it achieves in the way of votes for Netanyahu, an escalation of hostilities at this stage puts the kibosh on any pressure for negotiations over Palestine. President Obama may be sympathetic to the idea of renewed talks, but he is not going to intervene when there is no possibility of success.

For peace to have a chance, you need to have an Israel that wants it and a Palestine united enough to deliver it. There's not much chance of the former, still less now.

There's even less prospect of a united Palestine able to negotiate. The one thing that is changing is the international context. When the Palestinians go to the UN at the end of this month to seek observer status, Israel will find it has few friends and even fewer who support it with enthusiasm. Beating up on Gaza won't help that.