A March 26 meeting in Ramallah between an unofficial delegation of West Bank Hamas "parliamentarians" and Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestinian Authority and leader of the Fatah party, was ostensibly about reconciling the two factions. Actually it was about much more.
Abbas reportedly told his visitors that Fatah is on the cusp of gaining United Nations backing for a Palestinian state along the 1949 armistice lines—without having given up the "right of return," without recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, and without addressing a single one of Israel's security needs. Yet this coup, the fruit of long months of Palestinian diplomacy that would put paid to the idea of a peace based on compromise with Israel, was being jeopardized by Hamas's bellicosity.
True, Abbas might have conceded, Palestinians under his authority could hurl rocks at Israeli motorists or ambulances, attack soldiers, or riot against the security barrier with relative impunity and without negative consequences to Palestinian interests. True, too, Palestinian diplomacy had not been adversely affected even by the news of a ship laden with weapons bound for Gaza "militants," or by Hamas terror efforts to tunnel into Israel from Gaza—or, for that matter, by the slaughter of a Jewish family at Itamar, excused in some Palestinian media and by others in the West as having been provoked by "settlements."
But, one can picture him remonstrating, other recent "resistance" activities had put Fatah's progress in the UN at genuine risk. What was the point of pummeling Israel from Gaza with 50 mortars in 15 minutes back on March 19? What about the recent bus-stop bombing in "west" Jerusalem that killed a visiting Christian Bible scholar and almost claimed the life of a British television reporter? How were Abbas's diplomats to explain the bombardment of Beersheba and Ashdod by Grad missiles? A direct hit on some Jewish kindergarten could set back PLO progress substantially.
Had they been in a position to speak frankly, the Hamas men would no doubt have acknowledged that they, too, have an interest in seeing Abbas succeed at the UN. After all, a diplomatic victory for Fatah today would accrue to Hamas tomorrow—since the Islamists fully expect to assume control one day over a reunited Palestinian polity. For now, however, Hamas's calculations must be anything but straightforward, which is why a show of unity with Fatah could be portrayed as benefiting the aims of both factions.
It is certainly a fact that the popular uprisings now sweeping the Arab world have shaken the confidence of the Gaza-based regime, as demonstrated by the brutality with which its thugs have crushed the protests of Gazans themselves. Moreover, there are divisions within Hamas between the hard-line armed faction led by Ahmed Ja'abari and the purportedly more moderate "government" led by Ismail Haniyeh. The latter wants to be seen as open to reconciliation with Abbas; the former makes no such pretense. There are also tensions between the Damascus-based leadership, buffeted by the upheavals in Syria, and Hamas chiefs in Gaza.
In this environment, it may be that Hamas is having trouble imposing its will on other extremist factions in Gaza, particularly Islamic Jihad. (Only hours after Hamas announced that Gaza terror groups were ready to return to a de-facto ceasefire with Israel, two Islamic Jihad gunmen on their way to launch rockets against the Jewish state were liquidated by its air force.) Add to this mix uncertainty over the future of Syria and, by implication, Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan, and it is little surprise that Hamas might seek to turn the spleen of Palestinians outward.
For its part, of course, Israel has no interest in shifting onto itself the attention of the Arab street. By continuing to target terrorists engaged in actual attacks, deploying its imperfect Iron Dome defensive shield, and signaling that its agenda does not exclude killings of Hamas leaders, Jerusalem is endeavoring to deter Gaza violence in a prudent and calibrated manner. But what if these deterrent measures fail? What if a multi-casualty terror attack should leave Israel no choice but to go to war? What if an Operation Cast Lead II (after the name of the December 2008 intervention) becomes obligatory?
In such an eventuality, Israel would obviously strive to avoid the mistakes of the first Gaza war. But it would have to do more: it would have to aim at ending Hamas rule. Through a strategy of unremitting attack against the movement's leaders, structures, and symbols, military and political alike, the next war would have to ensure that Hamas lost the ability to command and control events in the Gaza Strip.
To that end, and in the certainty that Hamas would respond by unleashing its entire arsenal, a broad-based, national-unity cabinet might well be needed in Jerusalem to inspire confidence in the IDF and create solidarity on a besieged home front. The country's diplomats would have to argue convincingly that only the destruction of Hamas could spring Abbas out of his adamant refusal up until now to make the necessary compromises for a negotiated peace.
To be sure, with Hamas vanquished, and the Palestinian Authority presumably back in Gaza, Abbas would still be faced with a dilemma: whether to take the risk of making a real peace or, by continuing his present path of appealing to the international community to deliver Israel prostrate, to pursue his version of Yassir Arafat's June 1974 plan for the phased destruction of the Jewish state. The big unknown would remain what it is already: whether the Obama administration and those EU countries not pledged robot-like to the Arab cause would cease their pressure on Israel to make ever greater unilateral concessions and instead press Abbas to choose wisely.
Defeating Hamas, then, while marking a big step forward, not least for the repressed and beleaguered Gazan people, would be no panacea. But as the political analyst Max Singer has suggested, Israeli willingness to overthrow a Palestinian terror leadership and destroy its military capacity could serve as a crucial deterrent, signaling that the Jewish state will not tolerate a belligerent regime anywhere between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
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