In consideration of Mr. Netanyahu, I’ve judged him to be both a masterful politician and a very intelligent human being. I’m among the people that suspect him of being much more pragmatic than ideological with regards to Israel’s ongoing expansionist enterprise and his own political future. While he has the ability to rise to the level of true statesman, he seems more comfortable maintaining his long career by walking a tightrope between Israel’s various political interests. It’s because of this that Operation Protective Edge sits so uncomfortably with me – because I can’t shake the thought that Mr. Netanyahu’s stumbled while trying to negotiate the highwire between the moderate and right-wing factions of his own coalition.
The best place to begin unpacking this all is June 13. Presumably, in the early hours of that day, the morning after the three Jewish boys were kidnapped, Mr. Netanyahu would have been faced with a choice: Whether to blame Hamas for the kidnappings outright, or not.
There would have been several factors influencing this difficult decision. Chief among them was the recently signed reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah that was conveniently used as a wedge to free the Israeli government from the peace negotiations that were ongoing (if on life support) at the time.
Coming down hard on Hamas would go the furthest in mollifying the right-wing elements in his government, from which Netanyahu had been under increasing pressure since last year’s election. For the right-wing faction, Hamas and Fatah unity was a threat as it increased the bargaining position of the Palestinians, who could now claim to speak for the entire population. The right-wing’s most vocal leader had emerged as Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett, who’s never hid his opposition to a Palestinian state. For the right-wing, the weaker the Palestinians are, the better.
The right-wing would have been on Netanyahu to quickly condemn Hamas for the kidnappings, using the event to reinforce the stated themes used for backing out of peace talks: Hamas was a violent terrorist actor, unsuitable for peace talks.
So there was that for Mr. Netanyahu to consider. But on the other hand, Hamas was already vulnerable and isolated: Iran was disappointed with it for not supporting Syria’s President Assad in his civil war while Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood had been declared illegal and its members jailed. 40,000 Gazan employees of state infrastructure (paid by Hamas, but by no means all card carrying members) had gone unemployed for months. There would have been a desire among government to weaken Hamas and if possible render the reconciliation agreement null and void. But clamping down on an organization that was already, by most accounts, backed into a corner meant there was an increased potential for a dangerous escalation. And surely the government would not have wanted to topple Hamas altogether, given the potential for a more radical actor to move into the resulting power vacuum that would arise in Gaza.
There were other important factors that needed to be considered as well – primarily the likelihood (first reported by Shlomi Eldar in Al-Monitor) that Hamas wasn’t responsible for the kidnappings at all and were initially unaware of their occurrence. Responsible instead, was the Qawasmeh Clan, the epicenter of Hamas activity in the Hebron area, and a group not generally known for towing the party line. Far from falling into step with the Hamas leadership in the days following the establishment of the Palestinian unity government, the Qawasmeh Clan might have been acting specifically against Hamas wishes for quiet. Forced, as it had been, to cozy up to the PA under less-than-favorable terms, Hamas certainly had no desire to upset the apple cart so soon after being offered a lifeline.
Also part of the Netanyahu’s calculus must have been Gilad Shalit. Since the return of that young soldier in 2011, there doubtlessly would have been a formulated policy response in cases of future Jewish kidnappings. Israel’s enemies had clearly learned – as the government had warned – that kidnappings were good for businesses. In the case of Gilad Shalit, one Israeli soldier had bought 1000 Palestinian prisoners. There would have been a clearly-stated outline of what to do in the case of the next kidnapping, to pull the rug out from under the kidnappers and show them that the cost of kidnapping is greater than the potential rewards. In the wake of the kidnappings, given the speed at which the Israeli government re-arrested the Hamas members freed in the Shalit Deal, there’s very little doubt that the move was the pointy end of ‘anti-kidnapping’ policy stick.
Furthermore, acting quickly against Hamas would give the appearance of decisiveness, deliver a blow to Israel’s enemies and clearly associate the punishment with the crime. The only problem, of course, is that any policy response to kidnappings would have been formulated to be effective against state actors – like Hamas – and not non-state family clans. Further muddying the waters, the poor boys weren’t being held for ransom – they were dead, as Mr. Netanyahu would have already known.
But perhaps eventually weighing that a complicated problem would better require a simple solution, Mr. Netanyahu moved to mobilize the IDF to crack down on Hamas in the West Bank, publicly declaring Hamas to be the culprit, and repeatedly stating that the assumption was that the boys were still alive.
From there it is a hop, skip and a jump well explained by various writers, such as J.J. Goldberg, in The Forward. Expecting war in the strip, Hamas went underground. Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committee went undeterred from missile fire, and the next thing we know both sides are taking the only options available to them: Israel is sending troops across the border and Hamas is duly playing the role, however hollowly, of set-upon resistance force.
From that initial point where it was decided that Hamas would be held accountable in an attempt to shore up Netanyahu’s coalition, weaken the Islamist group, or both, both sides have had fewer and fewer options and escape routes, and have been drawn into a wholly unnecessary conflict that shows no sign of abating soon. Israel cannot stop rockets from violating its territory any more than Hamas can stop firing them, meaning that neither side has a clear means of extricating themselves
And now, with the ground assault and so many Israeli soldiers dead, Israel has already lost both its clean victory over Hamas and the moral high-ground that it enjoyed in the early part of the conflict. A forced ceasefire in the next few of days will mean that this accidental conflict will have done nothing to change the political situation on the ground and merely reset the clock until the next round of fighting.
Netanyahu at least realized this when he explained the ground assault as necessary to destroy the secret tunnels that had so prominently been featured in IDF videos since fighting broke out. Put this is a messy pivot – at the start of the campaign there was talk only of stopping rocket fire – intended to create options and manage expectations in a conflict that has so far had neither.
Worse still, given that Hamas cares so little for the well-being of it’s ostensible citizens, has nothing left to loose and no reason to negotiate for a bad deal, it’s possible that any mediated outcome will award concessions to the group that would improve its position compared to a month ago, while Israel may end up being forced to concede to some sort of empty promise of demilitarization and international monitoring (as with Lebanon in 2006).
Either way, when Hamas signed the reconciliation agreement they were in a desperate situation. In choosing to continue to punish the group and leading the country into a bloody and accidental war, Mr. Netanyahu and the government has made a strategic blunder, likely doing far more for Hamas than any kidnapping ever could.