As the debate about the potential nomination of Chuck Hagel as the next U.S. Secretary of Defense becomes increasingly heated, many have expressed their opinions both for and against the nomination. Last week, the New York Times ran two op-ed articles two days in a row defending Hagel. In one piece, Thomas Freidman did not just defend the Hagel nomination—he also defended Hagel’s alleged willingness to engage Hamas. Freidman wrote: “I don’t think America or Israel have anything to lose by engaging Hamas to see if a different future is possible.”
Here is a surprise for Mr. Freidman: Israel is engaging with Hamas—not only recently, but it has been doing so for the past few years. The best example of this quiet engagement is the ceasefire agreement that ended Israel’s recent operation in Gaza (Pillar of Defense). Despite initial skepticism, the deal seems to be holding, with more positive steps to ease the blockade (delivering building materials and allowing fishing at Gaza’s shore). In addition, Israel allowed Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to visit Gaza after years in exile for Hamas’s anniversary celebration. The man that Netanyahu once tried to assassinate has enjoyed unprecedented freedom. Israel, it seems, rewarded Hamas for firing the rocket that reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem by acceeding to a wide-reaching deal with the terrorist organization that is still committed to destroying the Jewish state.
What both Israel and Hamas has learned from the failed Oslo peace process is that direct engagement and shaking hands at the White House are bad ideas that bring scrutiny and earache. Therefore, both opted for quiet, indirect talks (the Gilad Shalit deal) that were necessarily based on shared interests. And believe it or not, there are many shared interests between those two archenemies: keeping quiet at the Gaza/south Israel front and undermining Abbas’s leadership are the best examples. Israel, for example, decided to punish President Abbas, who dared to go to the U.N. and achieve an observer status, if only a symbolic one, by blocking funds to the Palestinian Authority. Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman went event further by claiming: “There are many alternatives to the Palestinian President.”
Israel’s ill-fated disengagement from Gaza empowered Hamas and other radical Palestinians groups, who viewed it as a victory for the “resistance,” and helped them later to fully control the Gaza Strip. The same scenario could easily happen if the Palestinian Authority weakened more in the West Bank (despite Lieberman’s claims to the contrary). There are already reports—which may or may not be credible—of possible preparations by Hamas to take over the West Bank. Nonetheless, the ultimate aim of Hamas is to control the West Bank; whether they will achieve it by “reconciliation” or by takeover remains to be seen. It all depends on the evolving facts on the ground in 2013. A weak Abbas, a crumbling economy, troubles in Jordan and an Islamist regime in Syria, may all bring the West Bank to a tipping point, which Hamas is eagerly waiting.
Like two hostile neighbors living in a tense, crowded region, they continuously watch each other, looking for clues and hints. Netanyahu and the leadership of Hamas are enemies who at times share the same mindset: both want their cake and to eat it. Neither are willing to compromise, nor like to admit defeat, which is precisely why both are seeking to redefine victory and bend the definition of deterrence and balance of terror to their advantage.
Whether Obama appoints Hagel or not, Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians will continue to be dictated by the reckless underestimation of Hamas’s tenacity and ability to maneuver. Netanyahu might thinks he tolerate an emboldened Hamas until he finishes Abbas off, then later turn against Hamas if necessary—a risky game that will backfire. He shares the same mindset of Ariel Sharon, who assumed that disengagement from Gaza, without reaching a comprehensive deal with the Palestinians, was a good idea. It was not. Hamas's rule over Gaza may not alone finish the prospect of a two-state solution, but could soon open the gate for Hamas to re-launch its influence in the West Bank as the only party that can “engage” with Israel and bring reliable political results on the ground.