The Israeli assault against Gaza grinds on. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has put dusty boots on the ground (it doesn’t rain enough for them to be muddy), and the bombing and shelling by both sides continue. Civilians, as is usually the case in this part of the world, bear the brunt of the suffering. In the end, it will end, and nothing appreciable will have been accomplished. Hamas will not be destroyed, and the Palestinians will still not have their demands met. Some things seem never to change.

The crisis in Gaza is, however, linked to the broader crisis in the Middle East by its link to upcoming elections in Israel in February. The election, in essence, matches the Kadima party and its major candidate, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, against the Likud party led by superhawk Benjamin Netanyahu. The outcome could determine if there is any remaining likelihood of peace in the region for the foreseeable future.

According to a Newsweek analysis in this week’s edition, Likud is likely to prevail. The Likud program, with Natanyahou as its spokesperson, is decidedly hard line. Among its most strident positions is its refusual to shut down, reverse, or even slow the process of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. There are already 240,000 Israeli settlers on the West Bank living on land that would be returned to the Palestinians under a territorial settlement in which Israeli returned to its 1967 borders (the figure does not include Israelis living in suburbs of Jerusalem that are also arguably part of Palestine). Netanyahu not only would not stop or reverse the process of settlement of the “greater Israel.” He would accelerate it. All hope for a peace settlement would disappear in the process. In the long run, Israel will lose if this occurs, because it precludes the possibility–growing dimmer by the day–of a two-state solution (an independent Israel and Palestine). The alternatives are continued Israeli occupation (which breeds insurrection and thus periodic Israeli actions like Gaza) or a single state of Israel/Palestine in which Israel would either have to operate an apartheid system of denying political rights to the Palestinians or be in the minority. This would not happen instantly, but it would occur in the long run. Neither is a happy outcome for the Israelis. If they elect Natanyahou, they will demonstrate that they either do not understand this or prefer their moment in the sun followed by apartheid rule in the longer haul.

These are not happy prospects. The new Obama administration inherits a policy that in essence says, “Whatever Israel wants is what we want.” The problem is that the Israelis may want something that is bad for them in the long run. About half of the Israelis understnad this, but they may not prevail in February. If they do not and Likud wins, the Obama team will face a nasty set of alternatives. Do we accede to an Israeli policy of continued settlements that undercuts the prospects of peace but assuages American and some Israeli public opinion, or do we administer a little “tough love” to the Israelis and tell them they are on their own if they continue down the road to more settlements and less peace? More in the next posting.

Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations, and national security topics. His most recent book, What After Iraq?, was published in March 2008