The world wrings its hands, anxious and despairing. Israel presses on, grim and resolute. There are a number of interesting short-term questions. Would the Israelis have acted now if their election were six months away, not two, and if Mr Obama had already taken office? What led Hamas to end its ceasefire and fire hundreds of rockets, killing hardly any Israelis but infuriating almost all of them, providing Israel with an ideal pretext? Clearly, Israel had a plan for war in Gaza. There is nothing sinister in that: a country in Israel's circumstances ought to have contingency plans for all conceivable threats. But if you are up against an adversary as ruthless as Israel, forethought would be sensible, it is not clear that the Hamas leadership understands that concept.
Yet the longer-term consequences are far more important. If the rest of Operation Cast Lead goes as well for the Israelis as the bombing campaign – a risky assumption, given the hazards of combat in built-up areas – it is to be hoped that General Ehud Barak is aiming for an early end: some symbolic climax, after which he could declare a victory and pull back. Then the hard thinking needs to begin. The Israelis will, no doubt, draw conclusions. Their country's future depends on those being the right conclusions.
An Israeli hawk would have obvious reasons for self-satisfaction. If Gaza ends as well as it began, this will expunge the memories of Lebanon in 2006. Then, Israel suffered a strategic defeat. Worse still, a lot of foreign obsevers – and a fair few Israelis – wondered whether the Israeli army had lost its edge. It seems unlikely that anyone would think that this time.
Apart from applauding the IDF, our hawk would point to the number of dogs which have not barked in the night: southern Lebanon has been quiet; Hizbollah has done nothing to relieve the pressure on Hamas; perhaps Lebanon was not such a defeat after all. There has been minimal trouble in the West Bank, or in the rest of the Arab world. Our increasingly scornful hawk would insist that the idea of the Arab street ready to explode, sweeping away regimes friendy to the West and replacing them with psychopathic theocrats, is a fantasy dreamt up by bed-wetting European liberals. The hawk has grounds for confidence and many Israeli voters would agree with him. There is a background to this: the suicide bombings, especially when the bombers were children. It is impossible to overestimate the effect which that had on Israeli opinion. There is a phrase which was and is endlessly repeated, often by Israelis who are far from hawkish: "What sort of people are these, who send their children to murder our children?" Military historians have invented a phrase which is as ugly as it is indispensable; then again, it describes an ugly reality. "Species pseudo-differentiation": if you decide that your enemy is from a different and lower species, it is much easier to kill him in battle.
Over the past 60 years, the Israelis have been far less guilty of species pseudo-differentiation vis-à-vis the Arabs than the Arabs have towards them. They have occasionally been guilty of exploiting the Holocaust for emotional blackmail. This time, they have a point. Child suicide bombers almost seem to justify species pseudo-differentation and they inevitably reawaken memories of the Holocaust – not that those are ever asleep.
Facile moral judgements are even less useful here than they are normally. It is no use dismissing our hawk and those he appeals to. Their anger is understandable, as is their pride in their young men's valour. But if the hawks have their way, Israel will not survive the century.
The Crusader kingdom lasted for a century, nearly twice as long as Israel has been in existence, and the Crusaders had a problem which Israel shares. Both of them resemble organ transplants into a body whose immune system was determined to reject the intruders. The Israelis may have a far more powerful armoury than the Frankish knights of Outremer, but like the Crusaders, they are only the masters of a tiny littoral enclave, surrounded by much larger territories whose inhabitants resent their existence. What Prince Hassan of Jordan said of his own country applies equally to Israel: "We live in a dangerous neighbourhood." As long as those dangers could merely express themselves in conventional weaponry, the situation was manageable. But we can be certain of one thing. As this century progresses – if that is the right word – it will become steadily easier to manufacture nuclear weapons. So we are back to species pseudo-differentiation. There is a terrorist who hates Jews and is prepared to blow himself up. Why should he restrict himself to a bus queue, when he could take Tel Aviv with him?
There is no way in which Israel can guarantee that this will not happen: no way of removing all the danger from the neighbourhood. As long as the state of Israel exists, some Muslims will hate it. But the risks can be mitigated, or enhanced. As long as Israel occupies the West Bank, Palestine will be the Arab world's sore tooth. It will also be the Arabs' excuse for their failure to make political, social and economic progress. "Westerners lecture us on democracy and human rights. But look at the way they allow Israel to treat the Palestinians. What hypocrites."
That statement may be a gross over-simplification, but it is still a potent one. Up to now, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have proved to be much more durable and resilient than was feared. Iraq has been far less effective than Nasserism in undermining friendly Arab states. Yet there must be limits. The longer Palestine is unresolved, the nearer we will come to breaking point. Unless Israel's neighbours enjoy stability, Israel can never enjoy security. One can hear the Israeli protests already. Most Israelis, including many hawks, are in favour of a Palestinian state. In the Camp David negotiations at the end of Mr Clinton's Presidency, when Ehud Barak, now the hammer of Gaza, was Prime Minister, he offered generous terms. Who rejected them? Arafat.
But it is not only liberals who have fantasies. So do some Israeli hawks, who believe that there can be no deal on Palestine until the Palestinian leadership recognises the state of Israel. That would have been like asking the IRA to begin the Ulster peace process by recognising the legitimacy of Northern Ireland. Moreover, even the Camp David terms would only have handed over around 91 per cent of the pre-1967 West Bank. Forget the wretched Arafat: it would be very hard for any Palestinian leader to put his name to a loss of territory and survive. The Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins did a deal with the British and was assassinated. He was a much more powerful figure than Mr Abbas or his likely successors. The hawks who claim that Palestinian intransigence is blocking a deal have a point. They ought also to recognise that a compliant Palestinian would not find it easy to buy life insurance.
That said, we are not in an impasse. There is a way out. Israel should despair of signing a deal with the Palestinians and act unilaterally to implement the Camp David terms, preferably with a small territorial sweetener, taking the new nation up to about 95 per cent of the pre-67 acreage. This would not be easy, for it would involve the removable of at least 100,000 Israeli settlers: in many cases, a forcible removal. That would place the Israeli political system under immense strain, but it would be a price worth paying.
Yet it will probably not be paid. The likelihood is that the Israelis will learn the wrong lessons from Gaza, comforting themselves with the thought that we can always beat them if we have to. If so, there is trouble ahead and every likelihood of a ghastly ending. Israel was created partly to ensure that there could never be another holocaust. Generals are sometimes accused of planning for the last war. Israel is in danger of planning to avert the last Holocaust and ignoring the threat of the next one.