When Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to a cease-fire with Hamas rather than a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, he surely knew that his opposition would taunt him with these words from 2009: “We must smash the Hamas power in Gaza,” he said then. “The next government will have no choice but to finish the job and uproot . . . the Iranian terror base.”
That Netanyahu held back from doing so is testimony to not only his prudence or the influence of Barack Obama. It is ratification of the most important outcome of the latest Gaza crisis, which is the consolidation of a new Islamist front as Israel’s principal Arab counterpart, adversary and potential interlocutor. It comprises not just Hamas but the allied, Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Egypt, with Turkey and Qatar as supporting partners.
As a simple, pragmatic matter, “smashing” or “uprooting” Hamas is no longer an option. Not only does Hamas have the support of the region’s richest and most powerful governments, but it is preferable to the most obvious Gazan alternative, which is jihadist movements even more closely tied to Iran.
This may sound like terrible news, especially to supporters of the conventional Mideast “peace process,” who have been hoping that Obama’s reelection would open the way to yet another push to negotiate Palestinian statehood. But for hawkish Israelis such as Netanyahu — and maybe even for the doves — there is reason for some quiet celebration.
First, the new Islamic front is far weaker than the post-truce celebrations in Gaza suggest. Though it survived the assassination of its military chief and managed to bombard Israel with 1,500 rockets and mortar rounds, Hamas once again demonstrated that it lacks the means to do more than frighten or inconvenience Israelis. On the contrary: The success of the U.S.-funded Iron Dome anti-missile system suggests that missiles will be a decreasingly credible threat.
Meanwhile, both Gaza and Egypt continue to face major domestic problems. Much of Hamas’s governing infrastructure has been destroyed, including tunnels that supply Gaza’s economy as well as weapons. In Egypt, President Mohamed Morsi, lionized on Wednesday for brokering the cease-fire, was facing on Friday a violent domestic backlash against his attempt to further concentrate power. Having just signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund to prop up the teetering Egyptian economy, Morsi literally cannot afford to challenge Israel or the West anytime soon. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is similarly tied down by the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Though the Middle East is more unpredictable than ever, it’s reasonable to forecast that the Islamists will grow still weaker in the next several years. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will be no more able to sustain an autocracy than was Hosni Mubarak, and it will be blamed for its inevitable failure to meet post-revolutionary expectations. Iran’s ability to supply Gaza militants with rockets likely will wane because of economic sanctions and the crumbling of the allied Syrian regime.
At the same time, this Gaza episode may finally finish off the stubbornly persistent notion that Israel should negotiate a peace settlement with the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority without Hamas’s involvement. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Western-backed security forces are still relevant, as Abbas will probably demonstrate this week by winning a U.N. General Assembly vote recognizing Palestinian statehood. But Abbas has less standing than ever to speak on behalf of Palestinians — and in any case has repeatedly shown himself unwilling to negotiate with Netanyahu or commit to the concessions a peace deal would require.
Rather than watch another sterile round of diplomatic maneuvering among Abbas, Netanyahu and Obama, Egypt seems bent on overseeing another attempt to broker a reconciliation between the Palestinian factions. In the short run this would prevent peace negotiations, to the satisfaction of hard-liners on both sides. But in the long run it might make a deal more possible. Palestinian elections — a likely part of any internal accord — could bring in new and stronger leaders. Meanwhile Morsi’s government will have to choose between pushing the Palestinians toward an accord with Israel or tolerating growing instability on Egypt’s border.
Even if no comprehensive peace is possible, the new regional alignment may allow Israel and Hamas to work out a modus vivendi that benefits both sides. In exchange for more open borders and an opportunity to develop economically with backing from its new Arab allies, Hamas could agree to a more thorough and reliable truce that leaves southern Israel in peace. That’s a long way from real peace — but it’s better for both sides than going to war every couple of years.