What is the right strategy on Hamas: Concessions or fight?

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been engaged in a fierce debate with Education Minister Naftali Bennett over how to react to Hamas since the “March of Return” – whether to keep the status quo of Hamas’s relative submission which keeps the peace, or to return to the situation of tit-for-tat attacks and counter attacks that prevailed most of the time between its takeover of Gaza in 2007 and the third large round of fighting in the summer of 2014.

Netanyahu and Liberman want to reach understandings with Hamas to restore the relative calm that prevailed for nearly four years since 2014, and are willing to make humanitarian concessions and probably acquiesce to a sizable prisoner release of hard-core terrorists in order to restore that calm, even temporarily. Bennett, by contrast, is bitterly opposed to making concessions and seeks a fourth round of confrontation that will considerably weaken the organization.

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Why the merits of the debate are so difficult to assess is mainly due to the sagacity of both approaches on political and military grounds. The question of course is which of these strategies at this particular point of time would be better for Israel.

NETANYAHU AND LIBERMAN have a strong case in calling for restraint and even concessions towards Hamas. They see Israel’s strategic concerns in hierarchical terms.

By far the most important threat to Israel is Iran’s nuclear program and immediately following that, Iran’s attempts to set up a permanent military infrastructure in Syria that would include a sizeable pro-Iranian militia presence on the Golan front.

With the Americans on board in this endeavor – as US President Donald Trump’s chief security advisor John Bolton made clear on his recent trip to Israel – nothing these two leaders reason should detract from the focus on Iran, especially the renewal of sanctions against the Islamic republic.

In fact, for both Netanyahu and Liberman, the main reason behind Hamas’s decision to heat up the Gaza front in late March was at the initiation of Iran: to remove the focus away from Iran to the Palestinians. Such a change of focus, Tehran hoped, would embolden key European states, such as France and Germany, to take counter measures against United States sanctions over Iran.

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So critical was it to maintain the focus on Iran that these leaders were willing to pay the price of changing the balance of threat to Hamas’s favor and reward the terrorist group for the violence it initiated. The assumption is that the balance of power between Israel and Hamas is such that the restoration of the status quo to the situation before March 2018 should only be made after the sanctions against Iran are enforced to their full potential.

This is not a working assumption that they can apply toward Iran. Time, Netanyahu and Liberman reason, is of the essence – not only because Trump’s pro-Israel administration has only two more years until its fate is decided by elections, but also because there is a fear, given the legal challenges the president faces at home, that the time horizon might be even shorter.

BENNETT ALSO makes a plausible argument for not acquiescing to Hamas’s exploitation of Israel’s complicated geo-strategic environment. As far as Bennett is concerned, the focus on Iran is guaranteed by a president resolved to roll Iran back on its nuclear program and aggressive behavior toward its neighbors; a supportive US Congress; and the legal framework within which the sanctions operate that give them a life of their own – which cannot be sidelined by other crises such as a fourth round between Israel and Gaza.

Based on these assumptions, he argues that buying a period of quiet through concessions comes at considerable cost, especially if this means an increase in imports, which would give Hamas the wherewithal to improve its military capabilities. Any form of cease-fire, however it will be called, offers the organization ample time for training for the next round. This means greater and more lethal fire power.

Bennett is correct that Hamas has utilized its time wisely to increase its capabilities. For example, in 22 days of Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-2009, the organization, along with others, launched 925 rockets which hit Israel. This increased to 3,852 during the 55 days of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, which is almost twice as many rockets per day (70 compared to 38). Casualties were also significantly higher: 72 Israeli deaths compared to 13. The increase was mainly due to effective attacks from tunnels within Gaza and greater use of mortars against Israeli troops encamped within areas adjacent to Gaza.

Though Israel has developed technology to deal with both of these problems, Hamas has proved to be an innovative enemy that could very well come up with surprises in the next round. And one might safely assume that the longer the respite, the greater the probability that Hamas will surprise us.

LOOKING AT how Israel secured deterrence on the Gaza front also lends support to Bennett’s line of thinking. “Understandings” between Israel and Hamas have always been short-lived if acted upon at all. The 2005 “lull,” marketed as an informal understanding between the Palestinian factions and Israel, translated into a 345% increase in missile and mortar attacks that year compared to 2004.

After the 2012 round, the “understandings” brokered by the ousted Egyptian government of Mohamed Morsi lasted little more than a year until the deadly trickle of missile and mortar launchings began anew.

Still less did “humanitarian” gestures buy quiet. From the point of view of Hamas, the greatest humanitarian move was the release of over 1,000 hard-core terrorists in 2011 in return for the release of one Israeli soldier. This did not prevent the second round in October 2012.

Over time, only the three large-scale rounds of violence created accumulated deterrence between rounds in which missile launchings after each round appreciably decreased.

So what should Israel’s strategy regarding Hamas be – to make concessions à la Netanyahu and Liberman, or to initiate a fourth round of fighting à la Bennett?

The best strategy for Israel is to prolong the negotiations as long as possible, concede as little as possible, wait until the sanctions against Iran come into full force and then prepare in full force for the next big round – not to defeat Hamas, but to tame it and keep the Palestinians divided.

The writer is a professor in the departments of Political Studies and Middle Eastern Studies at Bar Ilan University and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

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