Last week, Hamas started a war with Israel that it could not win militarily. The hundreds of missiles it has fired at Israeli villages, towns and cities have terrorized millions of civilians, but thanks to effective civil defense procedures and a generally successful use of the Iron Dome system, they have failed to kill or injure many people. On the other hand, the Israel Defense Forces have exacted a heavy price from Hamas in terms of leaders and terrorists killed and destruction of their armaments. But Hamas still thinks it can win. As in the past, by hiding their missiles and fighters among civilians, they have deliberately endangered Palestinian civilians and created a toll of casualties with which they hope to distort the world’s view of the conflict. All it takes is one errant Israeli bomb that kills (as one did yesterday) a family to create an international incident in which the terrorist-run enclave can falsely represent itself as a victim rather than a perpetrator.
But Hamas is hoping for more than just the usual media gang-tackle aimed at delegitimizing Israel’s right to defend its borders and its people. This time, Hamas is counting on the diplomatic support of Egypt and Turkey to not only force Israel to accept a cease-fire before the terrorist group’s military infrastructure is significantly damaged, but also to extract concessions from the Israelis. Hamas is using the indirect negotiations for a halt to the fighting currently going on in Cairo to pursue an agenda that would effectively render it invulnerable to future Israeli counter-attacks as well as to strengthen its hold on Gaza. It goes almost without saying that no Israeli government could possibly consider agreeing to those terms even if meant that a costly ground attack on Gaza was the only alternative.
Hamas’s confidence is based on the idea not only that Egypt and Turkey have its back but also that the United States will not support Israel’s refusal to accept its demands. That is where President Obama, who has sought to avoid direct involvement in the Gaza fighting, becomes a crucial figure in its resolution.
Up until this point, the Obama administration’s stand on Gaza has been everything Israel and its supporters could have asked for. The president has himself spoken up on behalf of Israel’s right to self-defense and specifically said that the rocket fire from Gaza could not be tolerated. But he has also made it clear to Israel that the United States would oppose a ground attack into Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t need Obama to tell him that such a decision would be a disaster in terms of international opinion or that it would result in higher casualties on both sides. But he also understands that if Hamas sticks to its price for a halt to the rocket fire, the IDF may have no choice but to go in on the ground.
The only way to avoid that unpalatable scenario is for the president to make it clear to both the Turks and the Egyptians that not only will Israel not tolerate an end to the fighting that leaves Hamas the victor, but that the United States won’t accept it either. And if that means giving Israel the green light to take out even more of the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza, so be it.
Unfortunately, Hamas has construed Obama’s friendship for the ruling Islamists in Turkey and his embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as being a green light to their own escalation of the conflict as well as their unrealistic demands being placed on Israel.
Despite the pounding they have taken in the last week, Hamas still thinks it is winning the battle for public opinion. Even more important, it thinks it has the whip hand over Israel on the diplomatic playing field. The only way to correct their misperceptions is for the United States to make it clear that a Gaza cease-fire ought not to be allowed to make Hamas invulnerable or to strengthen the dubious legitimacy of the terrorist regime. If President Obama fails to speak out strongly on this point, the result will be exactly the escalation in fighting that he wants so desperately to avoid.