Israel’s government and intelligence agencies are facing a real dilemma. They aren’t sure if Hamas is still interested in a cease-fire deal or if it has it decided to abandon it. Is Hamas allowing Gazans to fire mortar bombs and incendiary balloons to pressure Israel, or is it merely using them to express its opinion of U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan?
Guessing Hamas’ positions has become a political and diplomatic game that obviously isn’t disconnected from the colossal event slated to take place here in another month – the third Knesset election of the past 12 months. But can anyone guess what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s positions on Hamas are? Does the government itself want a deal, or is it deliberately dragging its feet?
Depicting the issue of the Gaza Strip as if it depended solely on Hamas’ decisions, and military operations as if they were solely a response to Hamas’ actions, doesn’t just conveniently give Hamas a monopoly over responsibility for heating up Israel's southern front. Doing so also makes it look like the government is very interested in a deal, except that portrayal begs the question how can a deal be implemented as long as incendiary balloons are flying and rocket alarms are keeping thousands of Israelis hostage in bomb shelters?
It’s as if we’ve already forgotten the reason for the very idea of a deal. It was born of Israel’s and Gaza’s shared interest in preventing a military conflict, calming the border and letting both sides live reasonably normal lives. Israel (so it seems) doesn’t want to be trapped into yet another large-scale military operation – not just on the eve of the election, but in general. And Hamas wants to bolster its position as Gaza’s sole ruler, running the territory as it sees fit.
The deal, if it ever comes to pass, won’t undermine the balance of threats that characterizes the Israel-Hamas relationship. Israel’s control over the border crossings between Israel and Gaza will continue to threaten the latter; Gaza’s economic dependence on Israel will continue; and Israel’s capacity to launch a military response won’t disappear because of the deal.
The sterile debate over the question of whether the deal is a sign of Israeli weakness or Hamas capitulation is only relevant for its political ramifications. Anyone who favors a deal isn’t letting the army win, and has therefore been tainted by leftism, as if Israel would look stronger without an agreement, or Hamas would be able to portray itself as a hero that overcame Israel’s military power.
By its very willingness to let Qatar send money into Gaza, Israel has made it clear that it’s willing to negotiate with Hamas, albeit indirectly, and let it continue to exist as Gaza’s ruler, which it can hold responsible. Right-wingers who reject the Trump plan are actually the ones who ought to support a deal with Gaza, because it ensures the continued schism between Gaza and the West Bank, and thereby makes the Trump plan impossible to implement.
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Israel’s relationship with the Palestinian Authority is very similar to a cease-fire deal. Many more Israelis have been killed by terror attacks originating from the West Bank than have been killed in attacks from Gaza. Shin Bet security service director Nadav Argaman reported in January that 560 attacks originating in the West Bank were foiled last year, while dozens of attacks were actually carried out. And those figures don’t include around 1,500 incidents of stone-throwing.
Nevertheless, Israel isn’t punishing the PA, nor is it conducting airstrikes on West Bank targets. The sanctions Israel has imposed on the PA are in response to the latter’s payments to terrorists’ families. The paradox is that Israel is demanding that Hamas be holier than the PA when it comes to preventing attacks; it’s willing to accept a lot more terror from the West Bank than from Gaza.
Israel isn’t doing Hamas any favors by being willing to reach a deal with it, because Israel needs the deal no less, and perhaps even more so, than Hamas does. The longer it delays implementing a deal, the closer it gets to carrying out an “operation to end all operations.” Hamas, after all, won’t promise to wait until after the election.