Israel, engage Abbas now

Story highlights

  • Natan Sachs: Long-term cease-fire dubious; Israel's goal had been deterrence
  • He says some hope for Hamas-Israel resolution; but recall: Hamas denies Israel right to exist
  • He says Hamas won't renounce violence; Abbas, on other hand, has; wants 2-state solution
  • Sachs: Israel should be clear-eyed on Hamas, but seek far-sighted engagement with Abbas

The long-term prospects for the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas are, unfortunately, grim. But Israel may still have recourse with a Palestinian partner who is thoroughly different from Hamas.

From the start of the operation in Gaza that ended Wednesday, the Israeli goal was limited: to restore deterrence with Hamas and dissuade the organization from firing rockets at Israel. Speculation (and accusations) have swirled that Israel's upcoming elections drove the Israeli leadership's calculus when ordering operation "Pillar of Defense" (Israel heads to the polls in January 2013.)

But in truth, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a significant and secure lead in the polls even before the operation, meaning that going to war, with its inherent unpredictability, would only place his own victory in jeopardy. A shrewd and experienced politician like Netanyahu does not create his own October surprise when already ahead.

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Instead, Israel's aim was to recreate the limited deterrence that existed after the last large-scale conflict in 2008-2009 (Operation "Cast Lead.") After that operation, for a while, Hamas mostly refrained from firing at Israel, at times stepping aside while the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other smaller Gaza-based organizations engaged in rocket fire, and at times stopping such activity and policing the cease-fire with Israel.

Yet increasingly in recent months, and with Hamas' advances in weapons acquisition and in the diplomatic sphere, Hamas itself has fired large numbers of rockets toward Israeli population centers. The Israeli intent, in other words, was forceful but contained: deterrence but little more.

Even if the new cease-fire comes with effective deterrence between the sides, the question remains how to avoid the next large-scale conflict in Gaza if deterrence erodes yet again. It is, of course, tempting to hope for movement toward a long-term resolution between Israel and Hamas, to a diplomatic solution that goes beyond conflict management. But sobering though it may be, it is worth remembering the goals and nature of Hamas as a political and military organization.

Hamas' much-touted flirtation with pragmatism in recent months—cut short by recent leadership changes in Hamas—never went beyond agreeing to discuss a long-term but temporary cease-fire with Israel. At best, Hamas was willing to consider not fighting in exchange for concessions; it never even suggested it would commit to comprehensive peace or reconciliation. In fact, Hamas' rejection of the basic conditions set before it by the international community—acceptance of Israel's right to exist and a renunciation of violence as a political tool—speaks volumes about its goals, goals it never hid.

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For Hamas to accept Israel's right to exist would represent a fundamental break with its ideology. Moreover, unlike its parent organization, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas never renounced violence as a political tool, and, as if resolved to prove Israeli hawks correct, it used Gaza—from which Israel withdrew in 2005—as a launching pad for strikes against Israel proper. In its announcements boasting of these strikes it insists on referring to Israeli cities as "settlements," lest anyone differentiate between occupation of the West Bank or Gaza and Israel itself.

Hamas, in other words, may have incentive to act pragmatically, but it has done a remarkable job demonstrating it does not intend to do so.

And yet, whether Israel likes it or not, Hamas is here to stay. If there is a way forward it is not by wishing away Hamas' goals, nor is it by ignoring Hamas's central role in Palestinian politics. The key must be to widen the circle to include the majority of Palestinian society, still represented by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and by the PLO headed by Mahmoud Abbas. While Hamas will not renounce violence, Abbas, addressing the Israeli public directly, has unequivocally rejected a return to violent conflict with Israel.

He and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have proven their commitment to combating terrorism in practice in the West Bank. While Hamas will not even discuss recognition of Israel's right to exist, Abbas has repeatedly stated his commitment to a two-state solution and to a secure Israel alongside an independent Palestine.

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Moreover, if there is one encouraging element to Hamas' overtures toward diplomacy, it is in the organization's signaling that it might accept the popular will of Palestinians should they opt for peace. If the Palestinians ratified a peace deal with Israel by referendum or vote, Hamas may yet accept its popular defeat on that issue while still hoping to shape the future of Palestinian politics. One should have no illusions about Hamas' intents, but neither should one underestimate the power of the political considerations that constrain it.

It is therefore all the more lamentable that the Netanyahu government has so far failed to engage actively with Abbas and the PLO. At the end of this month, Abbas intends to pursue nonmember observer status for Palestine at the United Nations General Assembly.

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Rather than engage Abbas fruitfully—disagreeing perhaps, but with a clear, energetic drive toward resolution of the conflict—the current Israeli leadership has signaled that it will respond harshly to the Palestinian U.N. bid, perhaps threatening the very existence of the Palestinian Authority. Instead of differentiating between Abbas and Hamas, strengthening the former while weakening the latter, current policy could soon shut the door on meaningful diplomacy altogether.

Sound strategy would suggest a sober view of Hamas and its goals. It would also suggest proactive, farsighted engagement with Hamas' biggest rival, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

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