The volley of rockets launched by Islamic Jihad at southern Israel on Sunday didn’t take Israel's general election on March 2 into account. It considerably narrowed the gap between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s desire to maintain quiet in Gaza – at least until the election – and the pressure and threats of Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who is seeking to demonstrate the combative difference between himself and his predecessor, Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman.
Netanyahu has until now succeeded in calming Hamas by extricating from his partner, Qatar, a promise to continue aiding the organization and Gaza residents even after March 2 – a promise that came with a $12 million grant to be given to needy Gaza families. But Islamic Jihad isn’t a party to that deal. It has a different account to settle, not just against Israel but against Hamas, which over the weekend praised Qatar’s generosity from which Islamic Jihad will not benefit.
Lieberman’s revelation on Saturday that a “procurement” delegation headed by Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen and Israeli military's chief of Southern Command Herzl Halevi met with senior officials in Qatar to "beg the Qataris to keep funneling money to Hamas," wasn’t just the exposure of classified information known “only” to the prime minister, his aides, Hamas, Qatar and Egypt.
It was aimed at embarrassing Netanyahu and portraying the “hero of the war against terror” as the ally of a terror organization and as the one who has humiliated Israel by begging Qatar, which only strengths Hamas’ position in the Strip. But at the same time, Lieberman's exposure clarifies the degree to which Hamas has become a tool in the intra-Arab diplomatic game, with the power to create alliances and influence processes beyond the local arena.
Israel has allowed Qatar, which it has labeled as a terror-supporting country in the past, to enter the diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians in exchange for the millions of dollars it gives Hamas. Thus Qatar has achieved a similar, albeit not identical, status to that of its bitter rival Egypt, and has inserted itself deeply into the Palestinian issue.
The result is that Qatar and Egypt are informally sharing the diplomatic workload. While Egypt is responsible for conducting tactical negotiations with Hamas and is investing efforts to reach a long-term calm along the Gaza fence, Qatar provides the financial cushion that helps curb violence against Israel emanating from the enclave.
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Cairo has permanent leverage over Hamas in the form of the Rafah Border Crossing, which serves as a major lifeline for the movement of people and goods between the Gaza Strip and Egypt and from there to the world. Egypt's threatening ability to close and open the crossing forces Hamas to comply with most of Cairo's demands, which represent Israel’s demands.
But Egypt doesn't financially support Hamas or the Gaza Strip. Qatar, theoretically, can exert pressure through the entry permits it gives senior Hamas officials. But so far Qatar has not threatened to employ this measure. If Egypt holds a carrot and a stick, Qatar holds a carton of carrots whose use depends on Israel’s wishes. Therefore, a balance of interests is created in which Israel and two Arab states hostile to one another cooperate against an organization that knows how to exploit the balance of violence it maintains with Israel.
Qatar and Turkey are alleys and both countries see eye to eye on how to handle Hamas. Like Qatar, Turkey is helping Hamas and allows its senior officials and operatives to conduct business in its territory. Iran is also a partner in the Turkish-Qatari axis; it maintains close ties with both countries and continues to fund Islamic Jihad, but gives Hamas the cold shoulder.
Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia see this tripartite axis as a regional threat that weakens the struggle against Iran and undermines the position of the United States in the region. But it’s actually Gaza that forces both axes to naintain a double policy – conflict and threats in the Arab and international arena, and cooperation in Gaza to prevent an uncontrollable deterioration.
Israel could untie this Gordian knot by lifting the Gaza blockade or by coming to a long-term arrangement that would reduce Hamas’ political leeway and limit it to correct relations with Israel and Egypt.
Such a move would also make it unnecessary to beg favors from Qatar, which is perceived in Israel as military and political laxity and restores Hamas’ circle of influence in the region. But totally rescinding the closure is considered by Israel to be a red line that cannot be crossed, even though during the 12 years of its existence, the siege hasn’t succeeded in preventing violent clashes and the large-scale operations that Israel has carried out in Gaza. The blockade has become a symbol of Israel’s anti-terror policy, and it's doubtful that after the election, the government, whether centrist or right-wing, will agree to re-examine its efficiency.
A arrangement between Israel and Hamas, by contrast, is perceived as a legitimate move, even if it requires indirect negotiations with the organization and provides significant economic concessions that deeply erode the blockade policy. The problem is that such an arrangement is being marketed in Israel as the ultimate way to assure complete quiet. This is a far-reaching ambition that is liable to considerably short the life of such an arrangement if and when it is reached, if only because it allows the small Palestinian factions in the Strip to scuffle with Hamas on Israel’s back.
Israel's most realistic demand that can be met is a considerable reduction in the violence. The term “violence reduction” is being used as a strategy on the Syrian battlefields and recently in the agreements between the United States and the Taliban. It is based on a sober assessment of what can really be achieved in power struggles between rivals who’ve been quarreling for years.
Once Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and rejects the option of reaching any diplomatic solution, and in the absence of a diplomatic process with the Palestinian Authority, violence reduction is a legitimate goal. It doesn’t obligate the government to give up its political principles, but will obligate it to either accept violations or respond to them in a very measured fashion.