Endgame for Israel and Hamas - but What Comes Next?

Despite the cease-fire, it is likely, indeed inevitable, that there will be similar confrontations between Israel and Hamas in the future. Israel needs to learn the lessons of the recent conflict and act on the diplomatic front before the situation deteriorates even further.

Daniel Kurtzer
Daniel Kurtzer
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak during a statement to the press in Jerusalem, November 21, 2012.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak during a statement to the press in Jerusalem, November 21, 2012.Credit: AFP
Daniel Kurtzer
Daniel Kurtzer

From the start of the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, there was a certain inevitability to the end game. Israel has administered a significant, even devastating, blow to Hamas' military capabilities. Hamas has remained intact organizationally. And Hamas' hold over Gaza has been strengthened as a result of Arab solidarity. In this respect, it is not too early to draw some lessons from the events of the past 10 days.

Military winners and political winners.In responding to Hamas' escalation over the past weeks, Israel's objectives were designed to achieve military success: to degrade Hamas' capacity to launch rockets and to diminish its inventory; and to restore Israeli deterrence, so as to prompt Hamas (and Hezbollah) to think twice before launching attacks in the future. Israel has largely achieved these goals, for its military capabilities are stronger and more diversified than those of Hamas, whose military machine will be weakened for a period of time.

However, Israel's political goal has been unclear, whereas Hamas' goal has been crystal clear. Before the fighting, Hamas's standing in the region was enhanced by the visit of Qatar's emir and the support of Turkey and Egypt. Following this round of fighting, there will be an almost automatic outpouring of Arab support. Indeed, Hamas has been willing to put the Gaza population and its own arsenal at risk to concretize this support. If the cease-fire results in Egypt's opening the Rafah border to regular commerce, then Hamas will have delivered an even more important political result.

Political losers.Israel does not necessarily lose politically just because Hamas wins; this will depend on how well Israel can portray its success in achieving its core objectives.

The real political losers are the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas. Having eschewed violence as a means of achieving political objectives, Abbas has discovered time and again that he holds no cards to play vis-a-vis Israel. He wants the release of political prisoners, but Israel responds to such demands only when attacked for example, releasing prisoners to Hamas as part of the Gilad Shalit deal. Abbas needs money, but Israel's blockade of Gaza has had the (unintended) effect of enriching Hamas and impoverishing the PA. Whereas the PA used to receive the customs and duties on all imports into Gaza, the blockade has stopped that legal flow of goods and driven commerce underground, literally into tunnels controlled by Hamas. The sums are huge, probably upward of $100 million per month.

Abbas also ends up the loser by Hamas' enhanced political status. Even if the PLO achieves upgraded observer state status in the United Nations, this is a pale accomplishment when measured against the tangible gains achieved by Hamas. The only ray of hope for Abbas is if Israel returns to the political process with him, but thus far there is no sign of Israel's readiness to do this. Elections in Israel will absorb the attention of politicians as soon as the Gaza guns fall silent, and Abbas will be left with little more than a better seat at the United Nations.

Confusing tactics with strategy.As Israel mobilized tens of thousands of soldiers for a possible ground war, it did so with the intention of raising the stakes for Hamas and forcing the Islamist group to moderate its cease-fire demands. However, Israel's mobilization paradoxically tied its own hands and handed much of the next decision over to Hamas. Hamas knows Israel cannot

sustain economically an open-ended mobilization. Hamas also knows that a ground war raises two long-established challenges that apply to Israeli military action: There is a very limited time available to Israel until the international community says "enough"; and ground campaigns raise

exponentially the number of Palestinian civilian casualties and Israeli military losses. Thus, by raising the specter of a ground war, Israel in a sense allowed Hamas to dictate the next step.

This is more than a tactical dilemma. Since it is likely indeed inevitable that there will be similar confrontations between Israel and Hamas in the future, the question is whether Israel would be better off rethinking the efficacy of a ground war against an enemy like Hamas, and focusing instead on missile defense and regular, ongoing air operations, so as to retain decision-making in its own hands.

It is the peace process, after all. As long as there is not a serious effort to move the peace process forward, chronic conflict will continue to bedevil the parties in the Middle East. Status quos are not static, and temporary calm doesn't stay that way for long. Only strong and sustained diplomacy can possibly translate this chronic condition into the possibility of a peaceful, long-term understanding. It's time to push back against those who believe a comfortable status quo exists and can be maintained: It doesn't exist, and the situation keeps deteriorating. Why, then, not give peace a chance?

Daniel C. Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, is professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He is editor of Pathways to Peace: America and the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

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