Friday’s ceasefire marked the end of the fourth war between Israel and the Hamas Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip since 2006. As Albert Einstein allegedly remarked, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.”
But neither Israel’s long-serving Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu nor the leaders of Hamas are insane, so they must have been aiming for this outcome. Somehow, it serves both their purposes. What might those purposes be?
Netanyahu’s strategic goal is to keep all the territory west of the Jordan river, so he needs a Palestinian enemy that refuses to talk about sharing it. Hamas is that enemy. He also needed a war right now to thwart the formation of an opposition coalition that would deprive him of office and quite possibly send him to jail on corruption charges.
Hamas wanted a war, too. Its hated rival is the Palestinian Authority (PA), which ‘governs’ the West Bank under Israeli supervision. Another little war with Israel would strengthen Hamas’s claim to be the only true voice of the Palestinian people. Besides, it didn’t want to lose its de facto ally Netanyahu over some silly domestic peccadillo.
The ease with which the bloodshed was ended once Netanyahu and Hamas achieved their different goals gives the game away. A sarcastic reader of the Israeli newspaper ‘Haaretz’ nailed it on a comment thread the day before the ceasefire.
“The best attainable peace agreement is for Hamas and Netty to limit killing each other to 10 days before each election or no-confidence vote, since that’s all that keeps both sides in power forever. Then stop the killing early if the polls show the incumbents ahead by over 5 points….”
“But to show good faith, Hamas must do 3 terrorist bistro-bombings the week of the election, and drive sound trucks through blaring ‘Israel must be destroyed’ at 50 decibels above the agony threshold….. .”
The Israeli prime minister has never had direct contact with Hamas leaders, but as Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Yisrael Beytenu party, put it recently: “The one who nurtured Hamas and enabled it to get to where it is today is Netanyahu.” (Lieberman has served in three Netanhyahu cabinets.)
Adam Raz, co-editor of the journal ‘Telem’, wrote last week in Haaretz: “Netanyahu’s strategy is well-known, even if it’s never explicitly stated – to keep Hamas as a key player in the dispute with Israel in order to undercut the PA in (the West Bank). Why? Because with Hamas there’s no talk about a negotiated solution to the conflict….”
“Hamas very much fears Netanyahu’s departure and the weakening of the political line he represents. Hamas knows very well that another prime minister may resume cooperation with whoever is leading the PA and thereby deal a fatal blow to Hamas. So Hamas fulfilled its part of the unwritten agreement, as partners are expected to do….”
“Hamas has pushed the PA even further to the margins in recent days and strengthened its hold on Palestinian society…. In practice, the PA and Jordan have lost their hold on the ground to Hamas…..”
The war was not the result of ‘mistakes’, Raz concluded. Netanyahu did not foresee the radicalisation of Arabs in the West Bank and Israel proper, but apart from that everything went as intended. The war should be seen “not as a war between enemies but as collaboration between colleagues.”
I didn’t say all that. Raz did. But I think he’s right.