Time Loops and Israeli Decision-Making on Hamas

Palestinian militant groups are again firing tens of rockets across the Gaza border toward Israeli civilian targets. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak immediately warned that Hamas is responsible for the violence coming out of Gaza, and that the Israel Defense Forces might react by invading—again.

Others have already discussed the potential implications of the decision to use more military force against Gaza (here and here). In this extra-long piece, I want to consider the bigger picture of Israeli policymaking, and recommend that, notwithstanding the sensitive nature of the issue, it’s long past time for Israel to develop a new policy toward Gaza and Hamas.

Instead of conceptualizing Hamas as a tactical problem with short-term solutions—coerce it into accepting a short period of Israeli deterrence—Israel should think in strategic terms, with a policy accounting for how to engage Hamas long term. To do this, it needs to stop relying on its historical patterns of thinking.

Otherwise, it will be doomed to repeat the scenario again in the near future.

This is along the lines of what Giora Eiland, Israel’s former National Security Advisor, has been arguing for some time. Eiland contends that Israel should treat Gaza as an enemy state, and hold its rulers—Hamas—responsible for the attacks that come from it.

This makes sense, but it’s not clear that this will shift Israel’s view of Hamas from a short term military problem to be solved by military means—air strikes, incursions, and siege. The deeper problem is that Israel continues to use decision-making frameworks that have served it well in its past, but don’t reflect its needs in this moment.

The historical trend has been to rely on short-term, tactical maneuvering in response to real-time and urgent threats. There was good reason for this. The Jewish communities in Europe, under constant threat of persecution and isolation, had to improvise on a daily basis to remain safe. The Zionists in the Yishuv (Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine) followed this blueprint: struggling under difficult environmental and security conditions, with an unsteady supply of funds from outside the country and no protection from the governing authorities, it had to quickly develop self-sufficient methods of agriculture, politics, and security while adapting to changing local, regional, and global circumstances.

The 1947-49 War and the first decades of its existence furthered this pattern. Having to cope with more security threats—this time from the Arab states as well as Palestinian irregular militias—Israel also had to absorb hundreds of thousands of new immigrants and build the political, social, and economic infrastructure of the new state. This, without an assured and large enough stream of revenue, arms, and diplomatic support.

All of this forced Israel to react on the tactical level, making do with what it had. The ingenuity, informality, and heavier responsibility devolved to local leaders and commanders worked well enough under these conditions. Israel survived all of the threats against it, and thrived. But the cost was an ability to think strategically, and to re-conceptualize threats as challenges—which in turn require non-military solutions in addition to military ones. As Alan Dowty put it, the “filter of security” had come to dominate the Israeli worldview.

Such a framework is less effective in an established state that is the most prosperous and strongest power in its region.

Today, Israel has a flourishing domestic arms industry, a reliable flow of revenue from the diasporic Jewish community and the United States, a tight relationship with the latter (the world’s preeminent power), and an economy strong enough to survive better than others the recent economic crisis. It’s far more integrated into international forums than at any time since 1948, and it’s a veritable font of academic, scientific, and financial entrepreneurship and innovation.

At the same time, the nature of regional and global threats are changing—meaning Israel’s old framework for responding to them are increasingly less applicable. Where in the past, Israel successfully undermined its enemies’ ability to threaten it, today the Iranian nuclear program is more likely to remain in place than not, even if delayed. Where in the past Israel could count on the hostility of the Arab regimes but, by the 1970s, also their interest in avoiding direct conflict, today the Arab Awakening has changed the politics, and therefore the foreign policies, of some of these Arab states.

This is especially the case with Hamas. Indeed, Hamas has only grown stronger over the years, despite Israel’s efforts to degrade and contain it. It is at least partially responsible for Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005; it won the 2006 Palestinian legislative election; it seized by force control of all Gaza in 2007; and it’s increasingly being recognized as a legitimate player by Egypt, Turkey, some Gulf states, Europe, and even the United States, either explicitly or implicitly. Unlike Israel, Hamas has adapted well to the vicissitudes of the Arab Awakening, all the while expanding its rocket arsenal.

For its part, Hamas retains tight control over Gaza. It is now rooted in what Eiland called the Gazan state, and while Gazans themselves appear to resent its repression they give no indication of the will or ability to overthrow it. Nor is Fatah, Israel’s preferred Palestinian interlocutor, in any condition to overtake it in Palestinian politics.

At the same time, Hamas is under intermittent pressure to “prove” itself to Palestinians and others that it cannot be ignored. It is in constant competition with smaller paramilitary/terrorist groups, but it cannot shut them down completely. Yet it cannot allow them to set the “resistance” agenda. At some point, given these external threats and internal challenges from other domestic groups, Hamas will determine it needs to reassert its position as leader of the “resistance” against Israel, as we would expect from authoritarian regimes suffering from a lack of popular legitimacy.

Unable to close off its financial and diplomatic pipelines, Israel cannot destroy Hamas short of a full-scale invasion and sustained occupation. Given the sheer uncertainty of such a campaign, this is an unlikely outcome. Yet anything less will continue to impose severe threats on the Israeli population and considerable costs on the country in financial, military, and political terms.

It’s time for Israel to get ahead of the curve. Continually trying to restore the status quo ante is not a viable policy, and it cannot be effective long term.

Israel needs to rethink its approach to foreign policy, beginning by recognizing that while it is connected, it is not the same as security policy. The National Security Council (more accurately, the National Security Staff), Eiland’s former agency, should be given more legitimacy among decision-makers, and its discussions taken more seriously. The Winograd Commission that studied the 2006 Lebanon War recommended just such a change.

More concretely, Israel should encourage other states to engage with Hamas, to act as a conduit for discussion. Though it comes across as hypocritical when Turkey hits Israel for its reactions to Hamas yet sees nothing wrong with its own policies toward the PKK, Turkey has in the past proven a responsible mediator between Israel and Arab actors.

Israel should also engage others, like the US, the EU, Russia, and the Arab states to treat with Hamas more directly and openly. Trying to prevent them from doing so has clearly failed. But having multiple voices telling Hamas moderation is the only plausible avenue out of its siege will help the message sink in.

Jerusalem should also encourage Fatah and Hamas to resume their negotiations, by not treating them differently. The settlement enterprise might seem like a fait accompli to many, but the West Bank is a time bomb, which won’t spare anyone. Giving Hamas a stake in the entire Palestinian system and tying it to Fatah could well force it to work more responsibly.

At the same time, it should give the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank some sense that things are moving forward. Currently, both Fatah and Hamas have been rejected by Israel, despite adopting very different policies. But both need to see that negotiation, forswearing of violence, and cooperation are the only way to achieve positive outcomes.

Finally, Israel should respond immediately with limited aerial force to any barrage of rockets, with a set of pre-arranged contingency plans. Hamas needs to understand that its own security is more threatened by Israel than by fellow militant groups.

This will, in turn, require a more direct public conversation in Israel, rather than the blustering that substitutes for it in Israeli politics. Honesty about Israel’s real options regarding Hamas and the long-term efforts is important for the Israeli public, too.

However unpleasant it might be to recognize, every indication is that Hamas is here to stay. It will take a long time to convince it to change its behavior. The sooner Israel recognizes this, the sooner it can craft more effective policies toward it.


6 thoughts on “Time Loops and Israeli Decision-Making on Hamas

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