The escalation of violence in Gaza will have a predictable outcome. The winners of this war will be both Hamas and the Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. Once again, cynical political calculations on both sides has triggered a cycle of “attack and response” that will consolidate their bases of support and further diminish the prospect of a peace process.
When faced with an external threat, every nation rallies around their government and army. This conflict will draw attention away from the disastrous performance of Hamas, which has failed to improve the quality of life for Palestinians in Gaza or push Israel to end the blockade.
Hamas has been marked by infighting between the leadership inside Gaza, represented by Ismail Haniyeh, and the leadership outside Gaza, represented by Khaled Mashal. They are struggling over the question of who is the legitimate leader of Hamas. Historically, the political arm of Hamas was outside Gaza, while the military arm was inside. Today, these boundaries are in flux. This conflict will allow Haniyeh to be seen as the challenger of Israel,and the natural leader of Hamas.
On the Israeli side, Netanyahu, who will run in elections next January, leads on a hawkish platform that prioritizes national security ahead of social or economic issues. He will be seen as a savior that stood up to Hamas.
Without any negotiation perspective for the future, the real loser will be the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas. This conflict will overshadow the PA’s move to gain observer status at the United Nations, which will be a diplomatic and legal nightmare for Israel, opening the door for the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute Israeli leaders every time they operate in the Palestinian Territories.
Israel is putting enormous pressure on the U.S. and Europe to cut foreign aid to the PA, a dangerous strategy given the number of Palestinians on its payroll. Ultimately, if aid is stopped, we will see even in the West Bank an increase in the power of Hamas, who with the conspicuous amounts of money received from Gulf countries will be the only one able to pay Palestinian salaries.
This political dance between Netanyahu and the PA started a year ago when Abbas submitted his bid at the United Nations for Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu tried to undercut Abbas by negotiating directly with Hamas over the fate of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, despite having promised to never negotiate with Hamas. As it was put to me by Yaccov Perry, the ex-head of Israeli Internal Secret Service Shin Bet, Netanyahu’s move was designed “to f**k Abu Mazen.” A thousand Palestinian prisoners were released in exchange for Gilad, showing Hamas as a hero capable of achieving results.
Playing a cynical game on both sides, Hamas and Netanyahu simply want to preserve the status quo and win the next round of elections. Such an approach is particularly dangerous given the new makeup of the Middle East. Israel’s position in the region is now more unstable than ever. There is no one left such as Mubarak to broker a cease fire between Israel and Hamas or contain extremist groups. King Abdullah of Jordan, facing rising tensions within his own country, cannot afford to be seen as a negotiator with Israel. Mohammed Morsi, the new President of Egypt, will try to distance himself from Mubarak’s policies.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, stressing the importance of both security and a negotiated peace, said that Israel must “pursue the peace process as if there is no terrorism, and fight terrorism as if there is no peace process.”
This philosophy has been long dead among the Israeli leadership, which has been using the strategy of fear and military confrontation, fighting violence and extremism without acknowledging that they are the byproduct of the Israeli military occupation.