For the large majority of people who are watching the current war in Gaza with sympathy for all those being killed and dispossessed, and even for those whose empathy is confined to just one side, the current situation must be bewildering and frustrating.
Ceasefires are postponed and then rejected by one side or another; demands that seem reasonable but contradictory are leveled, and both sides accuse each other of horrendous war crimes.
Why is this macabre dance continuing?
Everyone knows there will be a cease-fire fairly soon and that it will largely be a return to the status quo ante
Why the delay?
The answer is not simple, nor is it invidious. Both sides are playing a long-term strategic game with each other, and both assume this will not be the last of these mini-wars. Neither side wants to grant “legitimacy” (an elusive concept at best) to the other, and needs to guard its own. And both sides have frustrated and angry constituencies to satisfy, or at least pacify (even authoritarian governments worry about public opinion, and we should never forget that Hamas was elected in one of the freest and fairest elections in the Middle East).
Every government always tries to intertwine its own political survival with the fundamental interests of the country and people it governs.
That provides it with the legitimacy it needs to function.
I take as a fundamental assumption that most do that in good faith, whether they are democratic, authoritarian, or despotic.
To understand this conflict, it is essential to realize that Hamas is now in the most desperate straits it’s been in since its founding, for a variety of reasons: loss of diplomatic support from Egypt, Syria and Iran; loss of revenue from the tunnels to Egypt that enabled it to evade the Israeli blockade until last year; and a consequent desperate economic situation, now exacerbated by the huge amount of destruction in the current war.
See Nathan Thrall’s excellent piece in the New York Times
, showing how the West and Israel have helped to weaken Hamas and thus make it increasingly desperate.
While one would think that would redound to the benefit of Hamas’s existential enemy, Israel, that is not necessarily the case.
Hamas accepted the PLO’s primacy in a reconciliation agreement after Kerry’s peace process failed, that it had long resisted, and tried hard to stop more radical factions from firing rockets at Israel.
For many years, I have argued that a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation is very much in Israel’s interest and that Hamas would be willing to subsume its pernicious ideology to the demands of survival. It showed its willingness in the coalition agreement, but Israel wrongly interpreted it as Hamas’s triumph rather than its near surrender.
See my explanation of the process that led to the current war
It decided to fight, and this precisely explains why it refuses cease-fire terms, because it was that situation that was – and still is – squeezing it to death. My own concern is not Hamas’s survival, but the plain fact that it will not be willing to die gently, nor can Israel kill it, as much as it would like to. No sane person corners a wounded bear, but that is exactly what was done to Hamas, and it reacted predictably.
That explains Hamas’s reactions, something that few seem interested in doing. Its leadership is not crazy, nor is it fanatic. While its rhetoric and ideology are despicable, its political decisions are generally carefully thought out and rational. It is not launching rockets because it thinks that will destroy Israel; rather, that is the only thing it can do to ensure its survival. Its preconditions for a ceasefire are not apocalyptic in the slightest; rather, they are what would enable it – and Gaza’s population as well – to survive.
Israel has known for years that it cannot “destroy” Hamas, both because of the extreme destruction and death it would entail and, at least as important, because then Israel would have to govern it. It’s been there and done that and never wants to again. It cannot just hand it over to someone else; no one would want it except the Palestinian Authority, but even the PA cannot accept it like that. Thus, since complete surrender by Hamas is not an option, Israel has to find a way to live with a Hamas-controlled Gaza for the foreseeable future. A Germany or Japan-1945 model is not possible.
Israel has long insisted that Hamas only exists to destroy Israel and that it will never accept Israel’s existence. Therefore, it reasons that only the periodic destruction of Hamas’s military capacity will (temporarily) stop Hamas attacks. Thus it “mows the lawn” (yes, that is the real euphemism) every two or three years, in the belief that Hamas will only use these weapons to destroy Israel.
What it ignores are the political and internal dynamics Hamas is subject to, and the fact that Hamas is neither monolithic nor monomaniacal.
As Gershom Gorenberg’s superb article “This is Your Brain on War
” makes clear, wars distort judgment.
Israelis want to behave towards Hamas as if it is Nazi Germany, which it is not nor could it ever be, whether it would like to be or not.
Israel’s inability or unwillingness to compromise with Abbas means it has to coexist with Hamas.
And coexistence requires allowing the other side to live and breathe.
Hamas knows that to keep its legitimacy and stay in power, it needs to break the siege on it, now that its tunnels with Egypt are gone.
It also desperately needs cash to pay salaries, which Qatar will provide if Israel lets it. Are these for Hamas’s political sake, or for the people of Gaza? The only possible answer is both.
Thus, political pressure is pushing Hamas to demand more than it did in previous ceasefires, but Israelis also want more, such as a demilitarization of Gaza, which would effectively end Hamas’s existence as a political player.
Thus, political pressures regarded as existential by both sides prevent a simply “humanitarian” cease fire.
The circle will eventually be squared when the toll of death and destruction eventually reach some invisible limit for both sides. The US is already insisting on a cease fire and, despite unprecedented Israeli resistance, one will eventually be accepted. Its terms will probably leave some of these questions open, but if they are not solved, the grass will be mowed again in another two or three years, and the cycle will continue.
Given the huge and asymmetric power differential, this situation is not existential for Israel, though many Israelis see it as such, partly because there is a national tendency – perhaps even imperative – to view every threat as a potential new Holocaust. In fact, it is more existential for the people of Gaza, and certainly for Hamas. Thus, if Israel cannot or will not compromise with Hamas, it must allow Gaza and Hamas some breathing room. It cannot squeeze both Hamas and the PLO and expect not to be attacked.
Limited wars tend to get out of hand. Neither Israel nor Hamas planned for this war but both were ready and neither expected, as they slid into it, that it would be so bloody. Both sides are angry about their losses. I very much doubt that Israel can somehow demilitarize Gaza, so it will have to coexist with Hamas in control. And Hamas will rebuild its tunnels and military infrastructure somehow. With little other economic activity and a male population trained in construction trades, it will not be that difficult.
Major progress in the Middle East usually requires a major war as a prelude. Israeli-Egyptian peace required the Yom Kippur (October) War; Oslo required the First Intifada. But wars more often don’t bring peace (1967, Lebanon 1982, Second Intifada, etc., etc.). I personally am dubious that this will be a “constructive” war in that sense. That requires some hard political decision-making, especially but not only by Israel, that I doubt will be taken.
In my view, Israel can indeed coexist with Hamas for quite a while and it may have to. That is a proposition that is worth testing. But doing this requires an acceptance that Hamas will insist on surviving.