Israel’s Hamas Challenge: The Third Way

The kidnapping and murder of three Israeli yeshiva students — and the extensive Israeli military campaign against Hamas, members of which Israel presumes to have perpetrated the act – illustrate the urgency of revisiting Israel’s policy options toward the Islamist group. Largely ignored since the last outbreak of violence, the issue is today again on the public agenda. How should Israel deal with Hamas?

The three principles set out by the Quartet (the EU, US, UN and Russia) – that Hamas renounce violence, recognize Israel, and accept previous PLO agreements – are unlikely to prompt a reexamination within Hamas — not only because they are theologically unacceptable, but because the Islamist group believes the PLO’s acting in accordance with them failed to deliver anything meaningful to Palestinians. Hamas’s own proposal of a decades-long term hudna is considered a non-starter by Israel; not only would it not end the conflict, but it is conditioned on Israel accepting an array of impossible demands: Palestinian statehood based on the 1967 borders and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, without any land swaps and with unqualified choice for all Palestinian refugees whether to return to their original homes or villages.

PM Netanyahu’s most likely course of action is to seek a respite from violence through what he calls “quiet for quiet”. More ambitiously, there are two alternative approaches, advanced by members of his cabinet, that would seek to fundamentally transform the conflict with Hamas. The first, advocated by FM Avigdor Lieberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett — dubbed “Let the IDF Win” — is for the Israeli army to retake Gaza for a sustained period in order to “dismantle the terrorist infrastructure”. This would involve directly confronting Hamas militants, arresting the movement’s leadership, confiscating weapons, eliminating production capacities, closing down its associations and charities and either enthroning another Palestinian ruler or continuing direct Israeli military rule. PM Netanyahu and the Israeli defense establishment believe the costs of this option are too high.

The second approach, supported by self-defined centrists like Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, also in effect envisions Hamas’s ultimate disappearance from Palestinian life, by cooperating with those she identifies as moderates – such as Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas — while striking Hamas. The Palestinian public would then, the argument goes, come to see that the moderates as the only ones who can deliver. But to date, they have delivered little more than limited material-economic benefits, far less than necessary to defeat Hamas. What would be required to see whether this strategy could succeed are gains truly appreciated by their society – viable Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem – which would require that the Israeli government give up much more than it is willing to, certainly in advance of a final status agreement. Nor are Hamas’s roots and infrastructure – which are not physical or organizational but societal, religious and emotional – likely to disappear from a conservative society.

A third approach is needed. While protecting Israel’s civilian population militarily, Israel should try to catalyze Hamas’s ultimate transformation to an unarmed political party in a Palestinian state. For theological reasons, even in a best case scenario Hamas will remain at arm’s length from a final status agreement. So it should be brought to accept, post-facto, what others will have accepted for it explicitly and de jure.

This strategy could include the following three components.

– Israel could encourage Palestinians – for instance, by welcoming PLO reform – to establish a legal ratification mechanism for a final status agreement that would commit Hamas to abide by the majority’s decision even where it is not to the movement’s liking (for example, even should, hypothetically, the State of Palestine accepts the Quartet principles or recognizes Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people).

– Israel could reply positively to the Arab Peace Initiative, possibly with minor and negotiable reservations, to lay the basis for a peace agreement supported by Hamas’s sponsors (e.g. Qatar and Turkey), strategically critical neighbors (Egypt) and countries representing an important Islamic voice (e.g. Saudi Arabia) that Hamas would find hard to brush away.

– In the Islamic arena, Israel could promote interreligious dialogue and cooperation with Islamic groups that, unlike Hamas, do not consider Israel’s existence a violation of Islamic law or principles. The southern branch of Israel’s own Islamic movement, members of which serve in Knesset, could perhaps be a relevant interlocutor. Its founder, Sheikh Nimr Darwish, supports the two-state solution and the Arab Peace Initiative. Rather than blocking all Islamist factions from activity on the Holy Esplanade, might publicly or tacitly granting a consultative role there for the southern branch lead to positive cooperation with Israel? Could Jordan’s or Egypt’s Grand Mufti be a relevant interlocutor on the esplanade’s management or on other issues? Are there potential partners in the non-Arab Islamic world? Palestinians, including the many varieties of Islamists among them, will need to establish their national movement’s positions toward Israel, but Israel could help shape this debate by encouraging engagement with Muslims not theologically opposed to its existence.

Taken together – ultimately combined, of course, with progress in negotiations toward a Palestinian state — these and other steps could help transform Hamas within a (likely non-militarized) State of Palestine, which, after its establishment, would collect and store Hamas’s weapons in internationally monitored depots within or outside its territory.

Netanyahu’s government is likely to muddle through, and eventually fight another round, rather than pursue any of these three options. But now is the time for Israelis to rethink. Hamas, with its regional position greatly weakened, might be open to considering new paths. With violence likely to increase, the recent kidnappings and murders should prod all seeking the well being of Israelis and Palestinians to re-visit long held assumptions in order to head off future tragedies .

About the Author
Ofer Zalzberg is Senior Analyst of the International Crisis Group’s Arab-Israeli project.