Hamas and Israel: The Best of Enemies?

Hamas and Israel: The Best of Enemies?

by Paul L. Scham

I have believed for awhile that Hamas is, unfortunately, the wave of the future in the Middle East, or at least an important aspect of it, and that Israel will have to find a way to deal with it (other than by war) sooner rather than later.  Somewhat to my surprise, this may now be happening.  See these recent articles in al-Monitor and Ha’aretz, for example.  They seem to indicate that the current government is making an effort to coexist peacefully with Hamas in Gaza, not something an Israeli government has previously done, and it is a complete about-face from this government’s rhetoric and actions before and through its mini-war in Gaza just a couple of months ago.

It also comes at a time when right-wing Israeli parties are heating up their bellicose rhetoric and the government seems to be positively anxious to get under the skin of the US and the Europeans, as well as that of the Palestinian Authority. It almost seems that Israel is bent on attacking its friends and ignoring – or even improving relations – with its enemies. 

This pattern is most readily explained by the upcoming January 22 Israeli elections. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud Beiteinu’s main fear is being outflanked on the right, and the last thing it wants is for rockets to start flying again from Gaza.  This would be a clear reminder that the last war – as necessary as the vast majority of Israelis regarded it – probably didn’t accomplish anything that Israel couldn’t have had without it, namely a working ceasefire, and would provide a clear opening for those on the right who have advocated “finishing the job.”
So is this merely an evanescent electoral ploy?  I don’t think so; I think there’s more to it.
Countries (or political movements) often need reliable enemies, and Israel and Hamas are in a perfect position to provide that service for each other.  I don’t mean to belittle the seriousness of their enmity – and the amount of blood spilled on both sides – when I emphasize this point.  Israel and Hamas feel themselves – with good reason – under existential threat from each other and, without major changes on both sides, of which there are no current signs, this will last for quite awhile.  It is to the advantage of both sides to settle down to a cold war.  That may be happening now.
Many commentators, including yours truly, have long advocated a long-term truce – known in Islamic law as a hudna or tahdiyyah.  Hamas has at times indicated interest; most Israelis – with exceptions – have scoffed at the idea.  However, the conditions are ripe for one – especially if its existence is not openly acknowledged.  The main prerequisite is recognition on both sides that the enemy cannot either be vanquished or turned into a friend in the foreseeable future.  For the Hamas-Israel relationship, this is clearly the case.  In addition, the presence of Egyptian President Morsi – whose role as a mediator in the recent fighting was appreciated by all, whatever his problems with his own people – is a very useful channel when issues arise that must be dealt with, as will certainly happen.
For this Israeli government, it seems to have the added (and rather perverse) advantage of serving to diss its nominal peace partner, the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad.  Former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – now facing indictment – liked to use Abbas as a punching bag, and in recent weeks the settlement expansions the government has announced have made any Israeli-PA interactions extremely fraught; so what’s to lose?
Indications that this tacit coexistence scenario is developing are currently merely straws in the wind.  In fact, rhetoric on both sides has recently been harsh.  But that may be part of the process; it’s better for everyone if all they’re hurling is words, not missiles, but something has to be hurled so no one will accuse either side of being soft on the other.
However, the reasons behind it may not be benign, at least on Israel’s part.  Its newly announced settlement activity, following Bibi’s smashed dreams of a Romney presidency, may indicate that Netanyahu – universally predicted as the winner in the upcoming elections – is battening down the hatches in preparation for a difficult period with its friends.  What better way to prepare than to placate your enemy?
By | 2013-01-04T16:58:00-05:00 January 4th, 2013|Blog|4 Comments


  1. Joe Weinstein January 7, 2013 at 7:50 am - Reply

    Strikes me as a Scham argument -:)!!

    Scham’s post’s overall claim is that it now seems rational (i.e. advantageous) both for Israel (i.e. Netanyahu govt.) and Hamas each to have the other as prime designated enemy – and that it is now rational too for each to have a cold-war cease-fire with that enemy. Well, Hamas long ago CHOSE Israel as prime and permanent enemy, rational or not. And when someone else keeps making trouble for you (as Hamas does for Israel) they ARE your enemy, whether or not you choose to have one or find it ‘rational’ to have one.

    And yes, for ordinary folks and regimes most of the time, cease-fire is more attractive than war. As long as such a cease-fire lasts you can say that your enemy is the ‘best’ of enemies. But what info does that really give us?

    For a century Arab nationalists and Islamic supremacists have warred against Jewish sovereignty, however modest, in the land of Israel. For Hamas (or their other perpetrators) what if anything is ‘rational’ or ‘advantageous’ now about such wars? Apparently victory is no longer the sole objective; it seems that Hamas now perceives a periodically demonstrated ability to survive and continue to fight endlessly, even without victory, as a sufficient end and aim in itself. Such a second objective would rule out Scham’s hope that Israel can – let alone must – find a way to ‘deal with’ Hamas without eventual war.

    By the way, Scham’s post implies – but gives no evidence – that Israel could likely have had a cease fire from Hamas without Operation Amud Anan. The reverse seems true: just prior to that operation and apparently triggering it, Hamas was revving up and literally going ballistic.

  2. Paul L. Scham January 12, 2013 at 10:05 pm - Reply

    Organizations are ambivalent just as people are – and also change with circumstances. I didn’t claim Hamas has given up its hopes of destroying Israel – just as Israel would still like to destroy Hamas. While I don’t think some sort of agreement between Israel and Hamas is out of the question, my point here is that a cold war is better than a hot one for all concerned.

    Evidence for Hamas’s willingness is a column by Gershon Baskin, the Israeli who negotiated Gilad Shalit’s release. It’s available all over the web, including at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/17/opinion/israels-shortsighted-assassination.html?_r=0

    You may not choose to believe him (I know him and I do) but you can’t say there isn’t strong evidence.
    Paul Scham

  3. Paul L. Scham January 13, 2013 at 2:08 am - Reply


  4. Thomas G. Mitchell January 19, 2013 at 1:21 am - Reply

    There must be a technical difference between a hudna and a tahidiyya, since Arabic unlike English doesn’t tend to have multiple words–with different linguistic roots–for the same thing. What is the difference?

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