Neither Hamas nor Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are interested in an all-out confrontation in Gaza. But they are once again engaged in a dangerous game of Gazan chicken, presuming that their rival will swerve at the last minute to avoid a complete crash, as they have in the recent past. Events of the past 24 hours indicate, however, that things might be spinning out of their control.
The relentless rocket barrage, the death of three Israelis, the scenes of destruction in major Israeli towns, the use of an anti-tank missile against an Israeli car, the increasingly harsh Israeli retaliation and the start of what seems to be a return to a policy of targeted assassinations – all point to further inevitable escalation. A single Hamas missile on Tel Aviv or Ben-Gurion Airport, as well as the successful assassination of a senior Hamas or Islamic Jihad militant could now consign Netanyahu and Gaza’s leader to the kind of do-or-die battle both have desperately sought to avoid.
If Hamas had exacted such a heavy Israeli toll in the weeklong flare-up before the April 9 election, their results might have been different. They refrained from doing so, for reasons that are open to interpretation, but exacted a reasonable price from an election-minded Netanyahu who wished to avoid conflict at all costs.
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When Israel was slow to implement the new agreements, and after the first transfer of Qatari money since the pre-election cease-fire agreement was delayed, Hamas decided to pounce on the opportunity of extracting even more concessions from a Netanyahu desperate to avoid a clash that could disrupt this week’s Memorial Day ceremonies and Independence Day festivities as well as the jewel in the crown – the Eurovision Song Contest, which starts next Tuesday. Once again, Hamas surmised, they have the Israeli prime minister over a barrel.
It is a risky venture, however, that becomes riskier with each and every rocket hurled at Israel. There is an unwritten price tag that Israel can bear without tackling the Hamas leadership head-on, and Sunday’s death toll is just about its limit. Any further loss of life will likely compel Netanyahu, as well as the Israeli security establishment, to expand its list of potential targets for assassination and perhaps to launch surgical ground incursions into Gaza as well. The Hamas response, in turn, would most likely lead to a far wider outbreak of hostilities, with all the disruption and casualties it might entail.
The one thing that Netanyahu seeks to avoid above all else is a re-occupation of the Gaza Strip. He is rightfully concerned about the potential loss of Israeli life in what may turn out to be a deadly anti-guerilla campaign in densely populated areas. He is probably worried that the substantial lunatic fringe in his new government and coalition will lobby to make the return to Gaza permanent. But his greatest fear is that if and when Hamas is defeated, Europe and the Arab world will press Israel to hand Gaza over to the Palestinian Authority, thus thwarting Netanyahu’s grand plan of dividing Palestinians in order to scuttle their claim for statehood.
The claim that Netanyahu prefers Hamas, despite its exclusively terrorist modus operandi, to the PA, despite its successful security collaboration with Israel in the West Bank, surfaced over the past few years in press commentary and in attacks by the opposition. After the elections, however, Likud politicians are openly touting it as Netanyahu’s brilliant strategy to avoid Palestinian statehood and to entrench Israel’s hold on its biblical homeland.
Netanyahu is not the first Israeli politician to try and play the militant Islamic Hamas against the steadfastly nationalist Fatah. As defense minister in the 1980s, Yitzhak Rabin courted Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, assuming that Hamas was focused on religious concerns rather than national liberation. Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza unilaterally rather than through agreement with the PA was also meant to hobble the Palestinian leadership and to weaken its claim for statehood. To this one must add the folly of former U.S. President George Bush’s administration, which naively pressed Israel and Fatah to grow forward with the 2006 legislative elections that legitimized Hamas and precipitated its eventual bloody takeover of the entire Gaza Strip.
Netanyahu, for his part, steadfastly rebuffed the Obama administration’s efforts to gradually reinstall the PA in Gaza, as well as similar proposals made by mediator Egypt and Israel’s new strategic ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Israel did its best to scuttle any unity deal between Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leaders in Gaza, saying that such an alliance with known terrorists would prohibit any future peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. In this way, Netanyahu believed, he could eat his cake and have it as well.
Throughout his decade in power, Netanyahu has pursued a “contain, maintain and complain” policy that suited his ideological purposes perfectly. He has tried to deter Hamas attacks with Israel’s superior military force and a strict blockade of Gaza, concurrently doing his best to avert the terrorist group’s total collapse, all the while continuing to denounce Hamas and to pledge its destruction. His strategy kept Hamas in constant survival mode, weakened Abbas’ claim to represent the entire Palestinian people and gave Israel excellent talking points about the lack of Palestinian partners.
The split between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank underpinned Netanyahu’s efforts to dissuade U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration from supporting a two-state solution. Best of all, as the recent election proved, the Israeli public did not hold Netanyahu to account either for his cynical ploy or for the price paid for it by residents of kibbutzim, moshavim and development towns adjacent to Gaza.
By seeking a policy of cohabitation with Hamas, Netanyahu is contradicting his own lifelong admonitions against any kind of accommodation with terror groups. But his ideological commitment to the Greater Land of Israel and ensuing opposition to Palestinian statehood not only trumps his supposedly absolute refusal to deal with terrorists – it sacrifices Israel’s basic security needs as well.
Netanyahu prefers a terrorist Hamas in Gaza that has no interest in a two-state solution over a Fatah or united Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) regime that would collaborate with Israel on security matters but continue to demand full statehood in the pre-1967 borders. The last thing Netanyahu needs, especially on the eve of the presentation of Trump’s peace plan, is a collapse of Hamas that would pit either the Israel Defense Forces or the PA as its only possible replacement.
Thus, even as he orders harsher bombing raids against Hamas targets in Gaza and approves more targeted assassinations and even as Israel amasses its military on the Gaza border, Netanyahu will be desperately seeking an escape hatch that will resuscitate his sacrosanct status quo. The said status quo means that Hamas will live to fight another day and to inflict even more misery on Israeli citizens in the south. It is a bad solution, but for Netanyahu and his partners in Israel’s new government, it is better than all the alternatives.
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