Commentary Magazine


Understanding Israeli-Palestinian Stability

Lost in the well-deserved criticism of President Obama’s call on Israel to exercise restraint in the face of terrorist violence emanating from two of its borders is a clear-eyed assessment of the status quo. “I also urge all parties to refrain from steps that could further destabilize the situation,” the president said. It echoes claims from the New York Times’s lead Israel reporter that Israeli self-defense had “destabilized” the region’s politics. Of course it’s risible to make that claim against Israel, but more importantly, it assumes the existence of a delicate balance that on all counts merits preserving. It shouldn’t.

To be sure, several aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s status quo are the status quo for a reason: both sides see them as advantageous or at least better than the alternatives. And the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli boys engendered cooperation from Mahmoud Abbas, which is another reminder that Abbas’s Fatah, for all its faults, is preferable to groups like Hamas, which would replace Fatah if it fell from power in the West Bank. But the statement about restraint mainly concerned Israel’s battle with Hamas. And it is here that the conflict presents a status quo that deserves to be shaken up.

As Haviv Rettig Gur writes in the Times of Israel, the Jewish state’s sense of humanity and defense of the value of each and every life will remain consistent no matter how often Hamas takes advantage of the fundamental decency of the Israeli people. And that’s the way Israelis want it:

Yet while the costs of past exchanges became stark and agonizing, Israelis also know that if push had come to shove, if the teens had turned out to be alive and out of the reach of Israel’s security services, and if Hamas had demanded the release of terrorists in exchange for the boys’ safe return, then Israel’s leaders would have found it nigh unbearable to leave them in enemy hands.

For Hamas, the collapse of this kidnapping has not changed the fundamental strategy. The “success” of the Shalit operation — successful in the sense that Palestinian prisoners were released — along with the sheer scale of the public outpouring of grief over the most recent murders, have assured Hamas that the effectiveness of kidnapping has not abated. Palestinian politics has yet to reach the point where critics of Hamas can safely point out that its belligerency has spelled a decade of ruin for Gaza’s economy and society.

As the leaders of Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other groups have said openly in countless glorying speeches following previous prisoner exchanges, kidnappings lay bare Israel’s weak underbelly, its whimpering, distraught obsession with its missing boys.

This weakness, Israel’s enemies have argued, has strategic significance. The skewed math of Israeli-Arab prisoner exchanges are a sign of Israeli decline, of slackening Israeli morale in the face of Arab persistence and endurance. Israelis may be militarily powerful, but their threshold for pain is low. Even the inflicting of relatively little pain — how many Israelis have died in rocket attacks, Palestinians often ask — can achieve meaningful gains toward the broader goal of Israel’s eventual destruction.

And here you have a concise explanation of why Hamas, and any of its peer groups who operate along those lines, must be defeated. It is one thing to counsel restraint when overreaction risks empowering the wrong forces. Israel does not want the PA in the West Bank to fall, and it will take care to ensure it does not bring Abbas down and create the vacuum Hamas has been waiting for–to do Hamas’s work for it, essentially.

But arresting and/or deporting Hamas leaders and operatives in the West Bank does the opposite: it clears space for Fatah and takes some of the heat off of Abbas. Hitting Hamas targets in Gaza provides the necessary contrast, and disrupts the terrorist group’s ability to plan and carry out its anti-Israel strategy, which consists almost entirely of committing war crimes.

The status quo, then, is really two different prevailing sets of circumstances. There is some stability worth keeping with regard to Israel’s relationship with Abbas’s West Bank government. And striking back at Hamas can keep it that way: “It’s clear that the terrorists came from areas under Palestinian Authority control and returned to territories under Palestinian Authority control,” Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said, as quoted by CNN. Hamas’s presence in the West Bank is destabilizing; Israel is trying to remedy that.

Then there is the stability between Israel and Hamas. In this case, the stability itself is not worth preserving. Hamas will keep trying to kidnap, torture, and murder innocent children. Israel will keep searching for them, trading terrorists for them if need be. Hamas will see the compassion as weakness. Lather, rinse, repeat. Those calling for restraint now to preserve stability are missing the vital point that Israel’s tough response is the only thing that can maintain stability where it is worth saving, and upend the status quo that fosters the murder of innocents.

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