The return of rocket fire on the Israeli south has illuminated the predicament of Hamas — trapped between Israel and Egypt; at war with the PA and the Salafists; torn between Saudi Arabia and Iran — and raised the question of whether Israel is one of the few regional actors keenly interested in preserving Hamas rule over Gaza.
More to the point: Is it a strategy that holds water? Does it make sense to perpetuate the rule of a sworn and skilled enemy, or should Israel, a regional superpower, be using its strength to facilitate change?
A close look reveals that there is an array of options, and that the current Israeli leadership prefers, when plotting its course, to perpetuate the status quo, building a still-in-the-making “cumulative deterrence,” which aims, over time, to sap the Islamist enemy’s will to fight.
The first unused option, highlighted by the recent Salafist opposition to Hamas in Gaza, is to abandon the policy of military and economic containment of Hamas and plot for its overthrow. This is an attainable goal. But the likely results of such a move are very much in evidence all across the region — the chaos of west Iraq, Libya, Sinai, and the Golan Heights, areas all under the dubious control of Salafist groups.
Some say chaos is not to be dreaded. Former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin argued during the 50-day war last summer that Israel should not fear toppling Hamas. He pointed to Hamas’s operational discipline, its ability to draw conclusions, to adhere to its own strategic goals, and to draw Israeli blood; and said that the alternative — which he acknowledged might well be the “Somaliazation” of the Strip — would still, at the end of the day, field a less-capable foe.
Neither the security establishment nor the decision makers in government would appear to agree with this assessment. The OC Southern Command, in charge of last summer’s war on the ground, has been increasingly explicit on the matter. “The sovereign in the Strip today is Hamas, and as of now, and in the foreseeable years, there is no alternative to it as the holder of government,” Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman said at a May conference organized by the regional councils of the Gaza border region, according to an NRG website report.
“Israel is interested in an address in the Strip,” he continued, “because without an address, there will be governmental chaos and the security reality will be far more problematic.”
Egypt and other moderate Sunni states would like to see the Palestinian Authority take back control of the Strip. The trouble is that, in the wake of the war, the PA has been showing no interest in advancing this agenda. Turgeman called the PA’s inability to re-assume control an “unassailable” fact.
This leaves, among the alternatives not taken, the option of negotiations with Hamas. In late May, former Mossad head Efraim Halevy argued, not for the first time, in favor of engaging Hamas in dialogue. He said (Hebrew) at the Fisher Institute’s annual conference that negotiations would require an approach that was “more realistic and less ideological” and that it would exact “a diplomatic price,” but that the result of engagement with Israel’s enemies might prove more useful than ongoing and grinding wars without talks.
Israel, as led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, would seem to have a different agenda. Its short-term goals, in terms of Hamas — but not only — are all negative in nature: preventing the Islamist group from building its military strength, preventing terror attacks, preventing chaos and, while denying economic achievements, also preventing a humanitarian disaster.
To some, this may seem desperately bleak: a horizon of recurrent wars, looming like the changing of the seasons. But Israel’s current leaders seem to adhere to a doctrine articulated by former Israel Defense Forces general, and Southern Command chief, Doron Almog. In an article published on Harvard’s Belfer Center site, he coined the term “cumulative deterrence.”
Describing it recently, also at the Fisher Institute conference, he said that just as Israel was able to defang the conventional military threat over the course of five wars between 1947 and 1973, so, too, it could, over the course of decades — by employing a combination of military might, national resilience in the form of a strong and stable economy, and strategic pacts such as the one with the US and with Egypt, along with certain incentives — bring about a process of moderation. Just as some of the Arab leaders moved from annihilation to attrition to peace, he said, so too could Islamist groups like Hamas, over many years, be brought, at minimum, to long-term ceasefire agreements.
Ya’alon, in his disdain for the Western notions of what he calls “solution-ism” and “now-ism,” would seem to be advocating for just this strategy. In his aptly named autobiography, The Longer Shorter Way, he wrote that only once the Islamic Republic of Iran has been defeated, could Israel adequately address the Islamist threat in the Middle East and advance toward regional peace agreements, which, he made plain, would “only fully ripen within many a year.”