BERLIN - Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has fought seven wars against its neighbors, including the recent war in Gaza. If you add the Palestinians' first and second Intifada in the occupied territories, the total rises to nine.
From a military perspective, Israel eventually won all of these wars - or at least didn't lose them. But neither have these wars changed much for Israel in strategic terms. Indeed, the core conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has remained almost unchanged throughout the past 60 years.
The United Nations' Partition Plan of 1947, which split the former British Mandate of Palestine between both peoples, was not and still is not accepted until this day. Sometimes one side rejects it; sometimes the other. This is why, to this day, people on both sides are dying.
Of course, Israel made a "cold peace" with Egypt and Jordan, and also established diplomatic relations with a few other Arab countries, but nothing has really changed at the core of the conflict, despite the Oslo peace process of the 1990's and other treaties and agreements with the Palestinians. The central question for both sides remains unanswered: where does Israel end and Palestine start?
Without a territorial compromise between Israel and the Palestinians, the conflict will go on endlessly, for it is viewed as existential by both sides. All those involved know that, in the end, only the borders of June 1967 - including Jerusalem and a negotiated, smaller territorial exchange - can be acceptable to both sides, however painful. Everything else is evil wishful thinking for which more innocents will continue losing their lives.
But, while it is abundantly clear that Israel will not vanish, and that the Palestinians will not wave the white flag, the conditions for a two-state solution are deteriorating. It took more than four decades for the PLO to recognize Israel. But, with Hamas's victory over Fatah, the Palestinians have gone back to square one, to the rejection of 1948. Hamas rejects any peace with Israel, and is at best prepared to agree to a temporary truce. Moreover, as part of the Muslim Brotherhood it also pursues an Islamist agenda, supported by Syria and Iran.
On the Israeli side, approximately 200,000 settlers on the West Bank and further development of the settlements weigh heavier than all noble words about two states. Given the facts on the ground created by Israel, there are justified doubts about whether a two-state solution is feasible at all.
The war in Gaza will harden this negative trend. For one thing can already be said with almost complete certainty: the political casualties on the Palestinian side will include President Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah. Their loss of legitimacy will not be reparable.
Whatever becomes of Hamas in military terms following the recent fighting in Gaza, politically it has finally taken over the PLO's role as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians. This means that the West's policy of isolating Hamas in order to weaken it, which has been pursued since Hamas's victory in a free and fair election in 2006, has failed.
When the weapons remain silent and the dead in Gaza are buried, the question of a political solution will re-emerge. An initial truce, by means of international mediation, can lead to a monitored long-term truce and reconstruction in Gaza. But what then?
Both Israel and the West will no longer be able to postpone the question of how to deal with Hamas, because Abbas and Fatah are now too weak and discredited to negotiate a peace settlement. And there is no easy answer, because Hamas will gain status through negotiations while maintaining its position to destroy Israel.
Or do we de facto accept Hamas's position that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is not possible, and that peace talks therefore make no sense?
In that case, we would have to make do with organizing a truce until the next crisis. But that would finally make any two-state solution a lost cause, and, although Hamas would have lost militarily, politically it would have won.
The alternative to a two-state solution is continuation of the conflict and the de facto reality of a one-state solution in which Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean will, sooner rather than later, constitute a majority. For Israel and the Palestinians, this is a dire perspective from both a strategic and a humanitarian point of view. Indeed, it is hopeless.
Trying to extricate both parties from the strategic dead-end into which they have maneuvered themselves will be possible only from outside. First, the United States must attempt to integrate Syria and Iran into a regional solution that also fundamentally changes conditions for both Israelis and Palestinians. Second, the US must impose a two-state solution on the parties involved, which will require both determination and maintaining the unity of the main international actors.
If an imposed solution fails, the entire region will begin to slip into a dangerous confrontation during the first years of Barack Obama's presidency. And that confrontation will not be limited to Israelis and Palestinians.
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