WASHINGTON -- The drama unfolding in Gaza seems numbingly familiar. This time, however, there's a big and potentially tragic difference: Not even the actors -- Palestinians and Israelis -- can possibly know how it will turn out.
How many times must they rehash this tired plot? Resentments build, tensions rise. A disputed border incident provides a spark. Israel reacts with sudden force. Palestinians fire rockets at civilian targets. Israel launches reprisal attacks -- first justified, then disproportionate. Anguished women wail at the funerals of dead children. Men swear oaths of vengeance, solemn vows that honor and self-respect will never allow them to break.
The usual ending is a cease-fire and a return to the status quo. But the whole Mideast region is undergoing a process of tumultuous change, and there is no guarantee that the stasis considered "normal" in the occupied territories will ever return.
As President Barack Obama noted, Israel has the absolute right to defend itself against rocket attacks whose sole purpose is to terrorize and kill civilians. Israel does not have a right, in my view, to keep Gaza's 2 million residents under permanent blockade as punishment for choosing officials of Hamas, the Islamist group, as their leadership.
Hamas, of course, has no right to launch rockets at Israel knowing they may fall on schools, hospitals and playgrounds. But Israel has no right to use this flare-up as an excuse for what some commentators have called "mowing the grass" -- assassinating Palestinian leaders who have proved particularly effective, destroying infrastructure for the sake of destruction, chalking up civilian casualties in Gaza as an unfortunate side effect.
Israel has the right to exist in peace. Palestinians have the right to an independent state. Each side insists on having its rights fully acknowledged before the other side's rights are even considered.
Enough with rights. Someone has to start dealing with new and unfamiliar realities.
Henry Kissinger's famous observation about Israel's security was that there could be no war without Egypt, no peace without Syria. For more than three decades, Israel has had a peace treaty with Egypt, the Arab world's most populous state, and a strictly observed truce with Syria across the Golan Heights. But then came the Arab Spring.
Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak is gone, replaced by an elected government whose leaders are members of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood -- an organization that has nurtured and supported Hamas. The new government has pledged to honor the treaty, but it is likely to take the plight of the Palestinians much more seriously than did Mubarak, who saw them not as brothers and sisters but as pawns.
Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, meanwhile, is fighting for his regime's survival in a civil war. It is quite possible that the country will fracture -- and with it, perhaps, the once-sturdy Golan truce.
Throughout the Arab world, religious parties are demanding -- and attaining -- new power and influence. There are many reasons for this Islamic ascendance, most of which have nothing to do with Israel. But is the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza a contributing factor? Yes, without a doubt, if only because it represents Arab humiliation and provides a focal point for a host of grievances.
Another factor to take into account is the influence Iran now has in Syria and Gaza. One of Israel's aims in the current bombing campaign may be to degrade Iran's ability to retaliate -- with rockets fired from Gaza -- in case of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. But does anyone really think the regime in Tehran is viewing these events with anything other than smug satisfaction? Perceived Israeli excesses in Gaza -- more than 90 people have been killed so far -- can only weaken international support for an attack on the nuclear sites.
There are far too many variables for anyone to be confident of what happens next. Perhaps Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh have an exquisite sense of how far they can push before things spin out of control. I hope so.
Both leaders say they want a cease-fire. Once the fighting stops, there must be renewed negotiations toward the obvious two-state solution. The Obama administration should use its power and influence to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the table, kicking and screaming if necessary.
Given the situation, a peace process is likely to be long, bitter and frustrating. But not undertaking one, as everyone should now realize, is much worse.
Eugene Robinson's email address is email@example.com.
(c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group