In January 2006, the residents of the Palestinian Authority (PA) went to the polls on the insistence of the Bush administration, despite warnings from Israel, Jordan, and Egypt that Hamas would win, resulting not in democratization, but Islamization. The administration ignored these warnings. It believed that the Palestinians, who had, by Arab standards, a relatively large and well-educated middle class, were good candidates for democratization, and that a successful Palestinian democratization would be a catalyst for similar achievements in Iraq, Egypt, and Syria. The elections took place. Sure enough, Hamas won, giving the Muslim Brotherhood its first electoral victory in an Arab state, sowing the first winds of what would develop into the “Arab Spring,” an erroneous moniker if ever there was one.
Fatah refused to concede, and after a year of squabbling, Hamas unilaterally took power in Gaza, killing or expelling all Fatah affiliated forces. Since then the PA has been a split entity, the West Bank under Fatah rule, Gaza controlled by Hamas.
Israel has never decided whether its strategic interests would be better served by perpetuating and formalizing the status quo, or by reverting to the status quo ante, in which Gaza and the West Bank were a single political entity. The reason for this is domestic political expediency.
Without a coherent strategy, Israel has had to limit itself to tactical responses. When Hamas aggression reaches unacceptable levels, the IDF mounts limited military incursions with tactical, not strategic aims.
The result of prioritizing political expediency over strategic national security interests has been to put the fate of the residents of the northwestern Negev in the hands of Hamas and lame duck West Bank leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Abbas wants to regain control of Gaza. Since he is still the de jure authority (the Hamas administration is not internationally recognized), he controls the flow of aid enters Gaza. A decade of misrule by Hamas has left Gaza on the edge, a few weeks of reduced inflow of supplies and funds is all it takes to precipitate a humanitarian disaster that threatens Hamas’s rule.
In response, Hamas does the only thing it can: it ratchets up aggression against Israel just short of the levels that would trigger a massive Israeli military response, to pressure Abu Mazen into permitting the flow of aid to resume.
The only way to end this cat and mouse game being played on the backs of the residents of the towns and rural communities adjacent to Gaza is for Israel to make a decision. It must choose whether its interests lie in perpetuating and formalizing Gaza’s separation from the West Bank, or in seeing it return to full PA control. Until it takes this decision, it cannot begin to develop a coherent strategy, a prerequisite for achieving any desired outcome.
History has shown that while Israel can unilaterally achieve tactical achievements, its attempts to reap strategic ones via unilateral action usually fail. There is no reason to believe this time would be any different.
This means Israel must formulate a strategy in consultation with the moderate Sunni states with which it is developing a de facto alliance, and make sure that Jerusalem and those states are on the same page in this regard. This is a prerequisite for obtaining the international support – or at least the international acquiescence – that would be vital for ensuring a successful outcome, irrespective of which option is ultimately chosen.
A reunification strategy would require a toppling of the Hamas administration. From a purely military perspective, Israel can achieve this. However, unless Israel can be assured it will not be saddled with the responsibility of reoccupying and administering Gaza, it would be folly of the first magnitude to undertake such a task. The PA is scarcely capable of providing even a minimally functional government in the West Bank, let alone taking on the massive undertaking of rehabilitating Gaza’s collapsing infrastructures. This means Israel must hammer out an international agreement that includes an iron-clad commitment to provide an international force that would assume responsibility for Gaza, ensuring public security and providing the level of competent governance required for its physical rehabilitation.
Because there are no free lunches, least of all when it comes to Middle Eastern diplomacy, Israel would have to make some kind of compromise with the PA in the West Bank. As even the relatively modest compromises that a minimalist interim agreement would require are anathema to the current government’s hard-core base, this would require the government to choose between strategic interest and short-term expediency. This is exactly the kind of choice Netanyahu has assiduously avoided.
A separation strategy might seem to be more politically palatable, but this is not necessarily the case. Any agreement giving Hamas the international recognition, legitimacy, and financial aid it craves must include at least partial demilitarization. If it does not do so, it is a sucker deal, as far as Israel is concerned.
Hamas would only agree to that if it fears the alternative would be its forced removal from power. Hamas knows very well that, while Israel can easily topple it, it cannot afford the economic and political costs of once again becoming the occupying power responsible for governing an impoverished, predominantly hostile population of over 1.5 million. Thus, without the threat of international support that would be a prerequisite for toppling Hamas if it were to break the agreement, any such agreement would be a waste of ink and paper.
Such support cannot be achieved without the government making a decision it has so assiduously avoided, because of domestic political considerations.
By kicking the can down the road, Israel has left itself without any effective strategic option for ensuring the peace and welfare of southern Israel, since as long as it limits itself to tactical measures, it can neither topple Hamas nor reach an acceptable and viable agreement with it.
This week’s acquiescence in the Qatari transfer of $15 billion of cash to Gaza via Israel fully exposes where the prioritizing of coalition expediency over national strategic interests has left us. By not formulating a coherent strategy, Israel has maneuvered itself into a chronic-crisis situation, in which its choice is to find itself suckered into doing Abbas’s dirty work for him, or acquiescing in the payment of Qatari-supplied Danegeld to Hamas.
The only way to end this lose-lose situation is to put national strategy above coalition politics.