Harder Than Rockets

How Israel Could Really Harm Hamas

Israel should boost the group’s main rivals and see Abbas as a real partner for peace, says Peter Beinart.

Jaadar Ashitiyeh / Getty Images

On Monday night, as I was mulling the horror in Israel and Gaza, a thought struck me. Maybe Israel should get tough on Hamas.

Isn’t that what Israel’s doing? Yes and no. Yes, Israel is pounding Hamas militarily, but military action, by itself, can do only so much damage. Israel can destroy Hamas’s rockets, but Hamas will buy new ones. Israel can kill Hamas’s leaders, but Hamas will train new ones. Even if Israel reoccupied the Gaza Strip, which it won’t, Hamas would simply go into exile and underground.

What Israel isn’t doing is attacking Hamas politically. Indeed, it’s doing the opposite. If Israel really wanted to harm Hamas, it would boost the group’s main rivals, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad. Abbas and Fayyad—remember them?—have bet their careers on the proposition that security cooperation with Israel and public recognition of Israel’s right to exist are more likely to bring their people dignity and justice than are Hamas’s rockets. But it’s not working out so well for them. It’s hard for Abbas and Fayyad to convince Palestinians that their nonviolent path to statehood is succeeding when settlement expansion gobbles up more and more of the land (and water) upon which Palestinians might build their state.

In 2003 the Bush administration’s “Road Map for Peace” obligated Israel to freeze settlement growth and remove illegal outposts. Instead, the Netanyahu government has doubled funding for settlements, Israel’s finance minister announced last week, including for those like Kiryat Arba that lie outside the large “blocs” that Israel might one day incorporate in a peace deal. And rather than dismantling the West Bank outposts that are illegal even under Israeli law, the Israeli government is reportedly considering legalizing them, as proposed by the Levy Report.

If you don’t think these moves weaken Abbas and Fayyad, look at Palestinian public opinion. According to a late September poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 66 percent of Palestinians believe that the Palestinian Authority’s “long term goal is to recover all or parts of the land that was occupied in 1967,” while only 24 percent “believe the goal is to defeat Israel and recover the land of 1948 or destroy its Jewish population.” Most Palestinians, in other words, believe that Abbas and Fayyad really do support a two-state solution. But 57 percent of Palestinians believe settlement growth has made a Palestinian state impossible, and a whopping 81 percent “believe that Israel’s long term [goal] is to annex Palestinian territory occupied in 1967.” Which is to say: most Palestinians believe that Israel is playing Abbas and Fayyad for fools.

If Israel really wanted to get tough on Hamas, it would not respond to Abbas’s bid for “non-member” status at the United Nations by calling for “toppling” the Palestinian leader, as Israel’s foreign minister has done. Rather, it would see Abbas’s bid for what it is: a nonviolent, multilateral effort to save the two-state solution. At the least, it would respond by affirming Israel’s support for a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines, as Netanyahu famously refused to do when Obama proposed those terms last year. Nothing would weaken Hamas more than serious negotiations toward a viable, contiguous Palestinian state, as most Palestinians still support such an outcome while Hamas opposes it.

And one more thing: if Israel really wanted to get tough on Hamas—and expose the folly of its murderous ways—it would not send nonviolent Palestinian protesters like Bassem Tamimi to military courts with 99 percent prosecution rates, where they are routinely imprisoned for months or years.

So why doesn’t Israel do more to weaken Hamas and boost its rivals? Contrary to the conspiracy theories you sometimes hear in pro-Palestinian circles, it’s not because Israel prefers Hamas. It’s because the Israeli right doesn’t see Abbas and Hamas as fundamentally different. For Israeli and American Jewish hawks, it is taken for granted that Abbas, like Hamas, is not a real partner for peace. Why? Because he won’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state, renounce refugee return, negotiate without a settlement freeze or an agreement on the 1967 parameters, or accept an indefinite Israeli troop presence in the Jordan Valley. What those Israeli and American Jewish hawks don’t usually acknowledge is that many of these litmus tests are new. Egypt and Jordan didn’t accept Israel as a “Jewish state” when they made peace. Ehud Olmert agreed to some limited return of original Palestinian refugees. He negotiated within the 1967 parameters and conceded that the Jordan Valley would be patrolled by international rather than Israeli troops. But by moving the goal posts, Netanyahu and other allies can insist that Abbas hasn’t truly embraced the two-state solution, even though Olmert, who intensively negotiated with Abbas for two years, insists that he has.

Israel can’t destroy Hamas. But Israel can weaken Hamas politically so that when Palestinians do finally hold elections, as they must, Hamas suffers rather than benefits for opposing two states. The problem is that in order to make Hamas suffer for opposing the two-state solution, Israel’s government would have to truly embrace that solution. And it won’t. Taking a hard line against Hamas requires taking a hard line against the settlements—and at the end of the day, this Israeli government is soft on them both.