In Israel’s history, only three prime ministers have held publicly acknowledged talks with Hamas. And only one has proved to be a reliable pragmatic partner for the Islamist movement: Benjamin Netanyahu.
As paradoxical and perplexing as it may sound, Netanyahu, avowed enemy of Hamas, is seen by the rulers of Gaza as the best of the worst, the lesser evil in Israel’s elections this week. Indeed, in mid-February 2019, ahead of what was to become a series of four elections, a majority of leaders attending Hamas' Shura Council, its consultative cabinet, favored Netanyahu over all others.
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In March 1988, Israel’s then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met with Hamas’ co-founder, Dr. Mahmoud Zahar. A few months later, Israel’s Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin also invited Zahar for a meeting with other Palestinian figures.
Zahar proposed to both that Israel withdraw from Gaza, six months later from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and hand control over the territories to a third party, "even if [the third party] is from South Africa," he said (back then, South Africa was still under apartheid rule).
Those meetings were part of regular consultations between Israeli officials and Palestinians not linked to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization. Successive Israeli governments, especially right-wing leaning ones, were so keen to counteract the PLO that since 1978, Israel licensed, encouraged and partly-funded Islamist groups in Gaza to undermine secularist, nationalist and leftist Palestinian movements. That same Islamist current formed Hamas in 1987.
But once the 1993 Oslo accords were signed, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority became Israel’s collaborationist partner rather than its enemy, while Hamas became a common enemy to both. Alienated and penalized, the movement became a spoiler to the peace process.
When Netanyahu held office in 1996, then in 2009, that equation began to slowly flip around.
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For instance, in 1996, the U.S. was about to extradite to Israel Hamas’ top political leader, Mousa Abu Marzook, in compliance with a request from Rabin’s outgoing government. However, Netanyahu, as PM, dropped the extradition request, out of fear that imprisoning Abu Marzook in Israel would ignite a wave of unrest.
Hamas saw then in Bibi a pragmatist, a military lightweight despite his commando past because he wasn't one of Israel's ex-generals turned politicians, desperate to avoid war, confrontation and trouble. These days, given his delicate situation with the corruption charges he faces, Hamas sees Netanyahu as even more desperate to avoid instability – and thus hostage to cooperation, if not appeasement.
Since 2009, it has become increasingly clear that Netanyahu was wholeheartedly opposed to the two-state solution and to Palestinian statehood, a stance made undeniably explicit during Trump’s presidential term. Netanyahu’s vehement dedication to destroying chances for a just and lasting peace with the Palestinians led him to the strategic decision to back Hamas’ control over Gaza and work towards entrenching it.
On the one hand, the repressive practices of Hamas’ government against Gaza’s population, the movement’s fiery speeches and parades, and its sporadic projectile firing on Israel, is the exact ominous scenario that melodramatic Netanyahu declares will happen in the West Bank if Israel withdraws and ends its military occupation.
On the other hand, Bibi would argue that Hamas’ indefinite control over Gaza renders the PA ineligible as a peace partner with Israel, as it doesn’t represent all Palestinians and doesn’t exercise its authority over all occupied territories, i.e. Gaza.
To ensure this remains the case, Netanyahu has consistently worked to foil Palestinian reconciliation. For instance, in 2014 when Hamas and the PA signed the Al-Shati unity agreement, Netanyahu’s team instantaneously left the negotiations with the PA. At the time, the late Saeb Erekat pithily explained Bibi’s strategy: "Netanyahu and his government were using Palestinian division as an excuse not to make peace. Now they want to use Palestinian reconciliation as an excuse for the same purpose."
And Netanyahu worked actively to fuel Palestinian divisions. He boasted that sending millions of dollars in Qatari cash to Hamas through Israel’s borders was part of a strategy to keep Palestinians divided and therefore prevent Palestinian statehood. In 2019, Netanyahu told the right-wing newspaper Israel Hayom he opposes uprooting Hamas from Gaza because that would "give it to Abu Mazen," and added: "The connection between Gaza and Judea and Samaria has been broken."
Furthermore, while Netanyahu has substantially weakened the PA – including withholding hundreds of millions of shekels of its tax revenue, dissecting the West Bank with settlements, military zones and settler access roads, and suffocating Gaza to near death, he allowed Hamas’ power and grip on Gaza to grow dramatically.
Netanyahu has effectively built a solid transactional relationship with Hamas, whereby the Islamist movement keeps the peace with israel in return for monthly cash injections. It’s worth mentioning this this was a policy that Netanyahu’s right-wing rivals Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman and even Benny Gantz ratified and oversaw during their stints as defense ministers.
Over Netanyahu’s last decade in office, Hamas and Israel established a mutual deterrence equation, where Hamas prevents armed groups from attacking Israel, avoiding IDF retaliation. In return, Hamas leaders can venture out in public without fear of assassination, confident that Netanyahu will avoid igniting any escalation.
Hamas’ top leader, Ismael Haniyeh, enjoys a jogging routine out on the streets when he was in Gaza, and Marwan Issa, the Qassam brigades head in Gaza, frequents the Al-Bureij basketball club to play hoops. Hamas members parade and perform military exercises freely in public without fear of a sudden attack, and the movement has even been launching experimental projectiles at sea to test and improve their accuracy without fear of retaliation.
As a result, Hamas expanded its armed resistance capabilities under Netanyahu more than under any other Israeli prime minister.
It also managed to score remarkable achievements that the PA never managed through diplomacy and negotiations, such as getting Bibi to free 1047 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel jails in 2011 in return for the release from Hamas’ captivity of Gilad Shalit. Netanyahu, it should be recalled, refused to free 24 prisoners as part of the 2013-14 Kerry talks with the Palestinian Authority.
For this reason, above all else, Hamas prefers Netanyahu over his main contender in the upcoming election, Yair Lapid, because the latter may return to prioritizing rapprochement with the PA, partnering with it against Hamas and working to restore PA control over Gaza.
It’s a no-brainer to back Bibi, who effectively ensures perpetual Hamas’ rule, and who enjoys a base of blind-faith followers who will support him whether he bombs Hamas or hands them cash.
Hamas also loves Netanyahu’s premiership because they believe he shows "Israel’s true face." A number of Israeli prime ministers have been investigated on suspicion of corruption: Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak; one was jailed for it – Ehud Olmert; a former president was jailed for sexual assault – Moshe Katsav.
Hamas routinely conjures up those examples to claim moral superiority over Israel, but Netanyahu uniquely sums up the movement’s portrayal of today’s Israel. Netanyahu seems to them to embody a 1999 prediction made by Hamas’ founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, that countries age like people, moving through babyhood to adulthood to old age, and that Israel would soon present signs of erratic decrepitude as it hobbled to its demise which, he believed, would occur in 2027.
For Hamas, Netanyahu is a corrupt, scandal-haunted, racist, morally bankrupt, populist demagogue fighting tooth and nail to stay in power, although he obviously knows his end is near – and a supremely useful guardian, if not a virtual ally.
Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2