President Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and offered to help mediate a cease-fire with Hamas that was accompanied by a statement of support for Israel’s right to self-defense. But Israel is not jumping at the proposal. And, as much as Israelis would love for the rocket attacks from Gaza to stop, that reluctance is well founded.
It’s still not clear if the Israeli ground operation that many have suggested is inevitable will actually take place. In a rare press conference held today, Netanyahu played his cards pretty close to his vest, merely saying that he will continue Israeli operations against Hamas terrorist bases in Gaza “until all quiet is restored to Israeli citizens.” But the assumption is that while the characteristically cautious Netanyahu is deeply reluctant to send troops into Gaza—a move that would likely cause casualties on both sides to spike—he also knows that merely letting Hamas stop shooting and then declare victory is not in Israel’s interest either.
Though Gaza is being pounded hard by strikes aimed at silencing the rocket attacks that have rained down by their hundreds on Israel in the last week without causing a single fatality, Hamas may well emerge as the victor in this exchange if it is allowed to exit the conflict with its rocket arsenal and infrastructure intact. More importantly, if, thanks to U.S. diplomacy, Hamas is allowed to remain inside the Palestinian Authority government and strengthened by its stance defying Israel, then the result will make it even less likely that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas will ever summon the will to break with the Islamists and make peace with the Jewish state.
The irony here is that even though Hamas is clearly losing the military battle in this contest of Israeli air power and missile defense against the terrorist rocket launchers, it believes it is winning the political battle. In its isolation after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and the sealing of the Gaza smuggling tunnels by the new military regime in Cairo, causing a severe cash-flow problem, Hamas was forced to embrace unity with Abbas’s Fatah. That exposed them to criticism from Palestinians who said they had given up the struggle against Israel but also offered the group a chance to strengthen its organization in the West Bank.
In the wake of the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas operatives, Israel rounded up many of the group’s members on the West Bank. Hamas then stepped up the missile fire from Gaza that had never really stopped completely even after the latest cease-fire brokered by Egypt and the U.S. in 2012. But by starting what appears to be a new war, the Islamists have regained their credibility among Palestinians as the address for violence against Israelis, a quality that has always served as the principal credential for any party seeking their support.
That means Hamas gains ground—at least in a political sense—vis-à-vis Fatah no matter whether the Israelis invade Gaza. If the Israelis don’t strike back on the ground and a cease-fire leaves Hamas’s infrastructure and arsenal intact, it can claim victory. But even if the Israelis do attack and take out much of their armaments, they can also claim that they stood up to the Israelis and strengthened their claim of being a better exponent of Palestinian nationalism than Fatah in an environment that will have become more radicalized.
Where does the United States fit into this?
The problem with the president’s expressions of support for Israel is that they have also been accompanied not only by calls for “restraint”—which are rightly interpreted as a not-so-subtle demand that the Jewish state’s armed forces stand down—but by continuing ambivalence about Hamas’s presence in the PA government. Just this week Obama praised Abbas, who embraced Hamas as his partner in April, while pointedly snubbing Netanyahu. The U.S. has refused to cut aid to the PA even though U.S. law demands that it be shut down due to the Fatah alliance with Hamas.
While the Palestinians don’t need encouragement from the U.S. to cause them to embrace radical positions that make peace impossible, the mixed messages from Washington, including today’s offer of mediation with a group that even Obama’s State Department still classifies as a terror group, heightens Israel’s sense of isolation and makes it harder for the Jewish state to deter Hamas terror.
Deterrence is the key word here since the Israelis understandably have no appetite to a return to control of Gaza or even of toppling Hamas since they worry about which radical group would replace it. However, the goal of making it more difficult for Hamas to launch strikes such as the ones that have paralyzed Israeli life the past few days remains.
The Obama administration has strengthened security ties with Israel and been generous with military aid, a point that has re-emphasized the importance of the Iron Dome system. But it has accompanied that help with constant criticism and diplomatic maneuvering that has made it clear that Netanyahu cannot count on Washington’s support if he seeks to significantly weaken Hamas in Gaza.
Moreover, so long as the administration refuses to pressure Abbas to cut ties with Hamas, it is impossible to expect the so-called moderates of Fatah—whose members have joined in the launching of rockets from Gaza at civilian targets in Israel—to reject the Islamists or their determination to keep the conflict simmering. Indeed, it is a given that any cease-fire with Hamas will be followed by renewed American calls for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and other concessions. Rewarding Hamas for terror won’t convince either side to take risks for peace. In exchange for real peace, most Israelis would be willing to make painful sacrifices. But the latest bout of terrorism and the barrage of hundreds of rockets aimed at Israeli cities understandably make most citizens of the Jewish state reluctant to replicate the independent Palestinian state in all but name that exists in Gaza in the West Bank.
Palestinians can be forgiven for thinking Obama’s mixed messages give them no reason to make their own hard decisions about embracing peace.
Israelis can also draw conclusions from America’s ambivalent attitude toward Hamas. While it’s not clear that any Israeli strike on Gaza will restore a sense of deterrence, Netanyahu would be wise not to base a decision about his country’s security on any assumptions about how to retain the good will of the Obama administration. Either way, they are very much on their own.