The first thing to understand about the war that recently broke out in Israel and the Gaza Strip is that Hamas forced Israel’s hand.
Almost four years ago in Operation Cast Lead, the Jewish state pummeled Gaza in response to rocket fire into southern Israel. And for a time afterward, the rocket fire diminished. But it has been rising again. There were 365 rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza in 2010, 680 in 2011, 800 so far in 2012—171 in October alone.
It’s not entirely clear why the attacks have increased. Hamas may have felt that Israel would not respond aggressively for fear of angering Egypt’s new, more assertive Islamist regime. It may have wanted to upstage its rival, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who may boost his stature among Palestinians later this month when he seeks “nonstate” membership at the United Nations. For whatever reason, Hamas provoked Israel. And this week, in what it calls Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel responded with a provocation of its own, assassinating Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jabari and sparking even greater escalation from both sides.
Will Israel’s offensive accomplish anything? Yes and no. For a while, it may cow Hamas into submission. And for the long-suffering people of southern Israel, any respite is a welcome thing. But there’s a problem. Israel can bomb Gaza from air and sea. It can even invade Gaza by land, as it did four years ago. But Israel cannot expel Hamas and other militant organizations from the tiny strip of land where Samson fought the Philistines, because it cannot hold Gaza. The cost of turning Israeli soldiers into beat cops on a thousand Gazan streets where even the 5-year-olds want them dead is too high. The Jewish mothers of Israel will not allow it.
At best, therefore, whatever quiet Israel’s offensive wins its people will be temporary. Once the cameras leave, and the dead bodies on both sides are beneath the ground, Hamas will rebuild its armaments and regain its moxie. And sooner or later Israel will find itself in the same position it is in today—except that Hamas and other militant groups will have better rockets, able to kill more Jews.
So no matter what you think of Israel’s military offensive, it’s not a long-term strategy. Israel and America desperately need a political offensive aimed at making Hamas less of an obstacle to peace. And for the last six years, their policies have mostly done the opposite.
After Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006 and then beat back an attempted coup in 2007, Israel responded with a partial blockade; the U.S. responded by shunning the group until it met three criteria: recognize Israel, renounce violence, and accept past peace agreements. The idea was that if denied international legitimacy, Hamas would renounce its militant ways.
But instead of suffering from Israel’s partial blockade, Hamas has exploited it. By shutting down Gaza’s exports to Israel and the West Bank, the blockade has destroyed Gaza’s independent business class, which might have been a source of opposition to Hamas. Instead, Hamas has created a new import-export system—through tunnels underneath Gaza’s border with Egypt—which it controls. What’s more, the blockade has isolated Gaza from the world, and this isolation has strengthened the most conservative elements in Gazan society. As a result, the emerging political opposition to Hamas is coming not from the two-state moderates America hoped to embolden, but from Salafis and jihadists who believe, terrifyingly, that Hamas is too restrained in its use of violence and too lax in its enforcement of Islamic law.
The flip side of America and Israel’s policy of isolating and punishing Gaza was, in theory, to strengthen Abbas, Hamas’s West Bank rival. But although Israel has removed some West Bank checkpoints and the West Bank has seen some economic growth, Abbas has only grown weaker over the last six years. Part of the reason is that his strategy of security cooperation with Israel, and public support for the two-state solution, hasn’t stopped Israeli settlement growth from eating away at the state he wants to build. Moreover, he has not benefited from Gaza’s misery, because many Palestinians see him as implicated in it. Every time Israel bombs Gaza, Palestinians in the West Bank pour into the street to protest, and Abbas’s soldiers beat them up and send them home. This makes him look not merely impotent vis-à-vis Israel, but complicit with it.
Most fundamentally, the Hamas strategy pursued by both the U.S. and Israel undermines Abbas because it denies him democratic legitimacy. Legally, Abbas’s term as president of the Palestinian Authority expired almost four years ago. But neither Israel nor America nor Abbas himself wants new elections, because they all fear Hamas might win. The result is a deep rift between Abbas and the people he supposedly represents. So in trying to weaken Hamas because it won’t recognize Israel’s right to exist, Israel and America weaken the Palestinian leader who actually does.
When the shooting stops, Israel and America will need a new political strategy. It should start with a clearer assessment of what they need from Hamas now. It would be lovely if Hamas accepted the past peace agreements signed by Palestinian leaders, as America and its allies now demand. But it’s not essential. It would be even lovelier if Hamas accepted Israel’s right to exist instead of saying—as its leaders sometimes do—that even if Israel withdrew to the 1967 lines, all Hamas would offer in return is a long-term truce. But that’s not essential now either. After all, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party officially opposes the two-state solution too.
Israel and America really need three things from Hamas right now. First, a ceasefire. What is more important than anything Hamas says is that it stops shooting rockets and prevents other Gazan militants from doing so as well. Second, Hamas must accept that, for now, Abbas heads the Palestinian Authority and is thus empowered to negotiate a peace deal with Israel. Third, whatever Hamas’s own view as a party, it should pledge to respect the will of the Palestinian people if they vote in a referendum for such a deal.
Hamas might accept these terms. It has respected ceasefires for stretches in the past and even enforced them with other Palestinian groups. Hamas leaders have at times said that they would abide by the results of a Palestinian referendum on a peace deal. And Hamas has in the past signaled that if it received key ministries in a newly created national-unity government, it might let Abbas keep his job atop the Palestinian Authority.
Even if Israel and America backed such a deal, it might still fail. Today, both Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah Party are deeply unpopular. Each fears elections that could imperil its grasp on those parts of the Palestinian territories currently under its control. But most Palestinians badly want a unity government and the restoration of Palestinian democracy. And under the recently elected Mohamed Morsi, Egypt wants it too. Such a deal would entail risks for Hamas, but it would also bring benefits, since a unity agreement would allow it to operate freely in the West Bank, where it is now essentially banned. And as part of such a deal, Egypt would likely open its border with Gaza, which would ease Hamas’s isolation from the world.
The Netanyahu government opposes a Palestinian unity deal and negotiations with Hamas. But some former top Israeli security officials disagree. And while it would be hard for Israel to tolerate Hamas’s openly contesting political power in the West Bank, it is precisely this shift that would boost Hamas’s incentive to abide by a ceasefire. Once Hamas won the fruits of a unity deal—freedom to operate as a political party in the West Bank and a more open border with Egypt—it would think hard before allowing rocket attacks that imperiled those gains.
To many Israelis this week, the prospect of a political accommodation with Hamas, the very group that is launching rockets at them, may seem absurd. And it’s certainly not on the agenda of Benjamin Netanyahu, whose reelection campaign is premised on the belief that Israel has no Palestinian partner. But dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization was once deemed unthinkable, too, and over time Israelis leaders realized that since they could not destroy the PLO militarily, they were better off trying to influence it politically instead. Now Israel should pursue a similar strategy with Hamas: never surrendering its right to respond militarily but shaping a political strategy that maximizes the chances of Hamas eventually accepting the two-state solution, something that some Hamas leaders, at some moments, have publicly entertained. That strategy entails risks. But those risks must be weighed against the alternative. By isolating Hamas, America and Israel are giving it every incentive to try to blow up any peace agreement that Abbas signs. By isolating the people of Gaza, America and Israel are radicalizing them.
Moshe Dayan famously said that “if you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” Hamas is today Israel’s enemy, as the bombs exploding up and down the Mediterranean coast attest. But if Israel wants to make it a less deadly and resolute foe, it must eventually follow Dayan’s advice. It must do more than prosecute this war. It must do everything in its power so it never has to again.