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The New Middle East

Israel and its neighbors

Nov 26, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 11 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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The Israeli tactic is to make the Hamas leadership pay directly for these terror attacks on Israel rather than to make the population of Gaza pay. Israeli targeting was extremely careful, and by Friday afternoon there had been several hundred strikes by the Israeli Air Force but fewer than two dozen Palestinian deaths​—​and very few accidental hits at civilians that Hamas could turn to propaganda advantage. The hope is that Hamas will be persuaded that the price is too high, and the rockets will stop​—​and meanwhile Israel will not have to listen to European and Arab complaints about the plight of the poor people of Gaza under Israeli attack. The initial Hamas reaction of more rocket attacks into Israel to avenge the death of Jabari was predictable, and does not tell us whether Hamas really wishes to escalate. If it does, an Israeli ground assault is inevitable​—​and reserves were called up in Israel in midweek.

When Israel began Shabbat, the supposed day of rest, as a day of war on Friday, the question remained whether Hamas was going to force a ground invasion by continuing and even escalating its attacks. It is plausible, because Hamas is in a difficult position, and a week of what it will call “martyrdom” may look attractive. The Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt has not been the boon they had anticipated, and the border with Egypt has been only partially opened. Egyptian soldiers continue to take apart the smuggling tunnels that over the years have provided so many goods to Gaza​—​and so much income to Hamas. And Egypt’s new government has not renounced the peace treaty with Israel, is negotiating with the IMF for a loan, and appears to seek steady relations with Washington​—​all anathema to the Hamas warriors in Gaza. In fact, Cairo even urged Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel. Meanwhile the effort of Palestinian Authority president and Fatah party chairman Mahmoud Abbas in the United Nations appears headed for a late November vote that will give “Palestine” the status of a “non-member state” U.N. observer. With that status in hand Abbas says he wants to restart negotiations with Israel after its elections (abandoning the Palestinian Authority’s previous position, in essence imposed by the Obama administration, that all construction in settlements and in Jerusalem had to be frozen first).

All this left Hamas looking marginalized, and what fun is there in governing a poor and tiny principality? Better, perhaps, to remind the world of Hamas’s true vocation, which is terror; to remind everyone that Hamas is still there and can still produce a regional crisis; and to remind would-be peacemakers with Abbas that he controls only half the Palestinian population. But whatever Hamas’s debatable motivations, it has produced this crisis and must now seek to avoid a visible defeat. Logically that should mean stopping now, but the leaders of Hamas are not conventional politicians. Their actions in the last few weeks remind us that Hamas leaders too have a “policy” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that it is not to prove they are effective negotiators in U.N. salons or efficient administrators of the statelet they now rule. They are not irrational, but they are terrorists, enthralled by blood, death, and martyrdom.

What we will learn early next year is whether there is a U.S. policy on Israeli-Palestinian issues beyond stopping the current violence. Since the quick failure of the September 2010 peace extravaganza at the White House, attended by Netanyahu, Abbas, Mubarak, and the king of Jordan, the Obama administration has not had one. The days when George Mitchell and Hillary Clinton inveighed against settlements are long gone. Today the administration is opposing Abbas’s U.N. efforts, and when he succeeds the administration will try to persuade him not to complicate matters further by bringing Israeli generals before the International Criminal Court or joining additional U.N. agencies​—​actions that would embitter Israeli-Palestinian relations even further, potentially prevent renewed negotiations, and lead Congress to end American support for those agencies just as we have withdrawn our support for UNESCO (where we supplied 22 percent of the budget). We see what Obama wants to prevent, but we don’t know what he wants to promote. Does he see the “peace process” as a second-term chance for greatness, or a magnet for endless and useless diplomatic efforts?

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