Israel’s invasion of Gaza has dramatically worsened a grave humanitarian crisis and will benefit no one except those who always benefit from war. There is no military solution to what is fundamentally a political conflict. Only a negotiated agreement between strong and unified leadership on both sides can provide the security and peace that Palestinians and Israelis deserve. As we go to press, various international parties are stepping up their calls for a cease-fire. The first priority, of course, is to stop the Israeli bombing and ground invasion and the Hamas rocket fire. But a halt to the fighting should be closely connected to a vigorous and renewed effort to reach a comprehensive peace agreement.

The humanitarian crisis now borders on the catastrophic. Gaza’s 1.5 million citizens are running out of food, fuel and drinking water. Seventy-five percent of the Gaza Strip is without electricity, and hospitals–low on supplies and powered by emergency generators–are unable to treat adequately the hundreds of wounded pouring through their gates. The sewage system is near collapse, threatening the spread of disease. Already some 600 Palestinians have been killed, a quarter of them civilians, with several thousand injured; ten Israelis have been killed, dozens injured.

After initially refusing to comment on the crisis, President-elect Obama finally said, “The loss of civilian life in Gaza and Israel is a source of deep concern for me.” He added, “Starting at the beginning of our administration, we are going to be engaged effectively and consistently in trying to resolve the conflict in the Middle East.” Obama should not wait until January 20 to speak out on the importance of a cease-fire and a long-term settlement, especially since the Bush administration has encouraged Israel to continue its military assault rather than push for an end to the fighting.

If Obama were to take swift and courageous steps toward peace once he took office, he would encounter resistance, but he would also find promising new wellsprings of support. J Street, the new Washington lobby that brands itself as “the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement,” has called for an immediate cease-fire and in general set itself up as a counter to the right-wing AIPAC lobby and its Christian Zionist allies. J Street is joined by other good activist groups, such as Americans for Peace Now and Jewish Voice for Peace. Most of Congress has been shamefully quiescent, but Representative Dennis Kucinich has spoken out courageously against the violence, as have several other members lauded by J Street. And on the first day of Israel’s ground invasion, 10,000 Israelis took part in a massive peace demonstration.

The contours of a just peace have been well known to all the players for years. It involves a firm Israeli commitment to withdraw to its 1967 borders, with at most minor and mutually agreed on adjustments; a Palestinian state in the territories with sovereignty over East Jerusalem; and a fair and agreed on resolution of the refugee question. If Israel were to commit itself to such a plan, it would see Palestinian support for armed attacks dry up, as the Palestinian public overwhelmingly favors such a two-state solution. The Arab world does too, as evidenced by the Arab League Peace Initiative of 2002, since reiterated, which adheres to the same principles and offers full recognition of Israel upon acceptance. But as Henry Siegman pointed out in the last issue of The Nation, Israel desperately needs strong leadership from Washington to take the risk for peace. If Obama doesn’t take concerted action quickly, the hope for a two-state solution will fade, and the region will be cursed with many more years of bloodshed.