January 17, 2019

Three Dilemmas in Gaza

There are much more than three dilemmas to consider as Israel and Hamas, assisted by Egypt, are pondering a deal to resolve the Gaza crisis. But amid the usual cacophony of reports that mix apples and oranges (or in the case of Gaza, rockets and balloons), it is worth considering some of these dilemmas separately. 

Obviously, such an exercise still leaves us without a clear answer to what Israel needs to do. But it still is useful, as it is the first step out of two. First, separate and dissect the main dilemmas. Second, set the priorities between the different dilemmas. If you can do both, you will know what Israel needs to do next.   

Dilemma One: Long or short term. 

In the short term, Israel does not want war. In the long term, it does not want Hamas to get stronger. These are the two basic elements of this dilemma. And these elements rest on two presuppositions: 1) War cannot solve the long-term problems in Gaza (and hence, there is no long-term benefit to war); 2) Hamas is in Gaza for the long haul — that is, there is no viable path to removing it. War will not remove Hamas, unless Israel wants to take over (and it does not). Peace will not remove Hamas. In fact, it is likely to strengthen Hamas. And this is where the long-term becomes an issue. 

Strengthening Hamas is not in Israel’s interest. That is, unless a way can be found to strengthen Hamas as a power that rules the unruly Gaza, without it one day turning this newly developed strength against Israel. So now the dilemma becomes clear, if not simple to overcome: Can Israel give Hamas enough to avoid war without it being enough for Hamas to get much stronger and hence more dangerous?

Dilemma Two: What about the Palestinian Authority?

In the short term, Israel is tired of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its incompetence in solving the Gaza problem. In the long term, the Palestinian Authority is, or used to be, Israel’s possible partner. 

This becomes an issue as Israel ponders a settlement in Gaza disregarding the interest of the PA, its policy and sensitivities. This becomes an issue as Israel ponders a settlement that is likely to strengthen Hamas and further erode any prospect of the PA coming back to control Gaza. 

Of course, this is only a dilemma if Israel still hopes for the PA to one day become a partner for peace — and there are more than a few critics of Israel who believe this is no longer the case. In fact, if it is no longer the case, Israel might have an interest in keeping the Palestinians divided. 

In the short term, Israel does not want war. In the long term, it does not want Hamas to get stronger.

Dilemma Three: With or without the missing soldiers. 

In Israel, this is the most talked about dilemma, even though it is probably the least important of the three. In short: Hamas holds on to the bodies of Israeli soldiers who were killed in the 2014 Gaza conflict. Israel demands that these bodies be returned as part of any arrangement. Hamas refuses to trade the bodies for anything other than the release of its prisoners in Israeli jails. So the two sides are stuck with a dramatic possibility — that there will be another war over the return of bodies from the previous war.

Politically speaking, it is very difficult for an Israeli government to have a deal with Hamas that does not include a resolution of this situation. There is pressure from the families of the missing soldiers, with whom the public identifies (and for good reason). But trading bodies for Hamas prisoners also will be highly unpopular — and unwise. 

So the way forward for the government is one of three: 1) Refuse to settle matters with Hamas unless the soldiers are sent back. The possible benefit: Hamas will blink first. The possible harm: War. 2) Reject the demand to condition a general settlement with Hamas on the return of the bodies. The possible benefit: removing an obstacle to agreement. The possible harm: losing Israel’s best opportunity for returning the bodies without paying an unacceptable price. 3) Release Hamas prisoners. The possible benefit: taking the issue off the table and the pressure of families off the government’s back. The possible harm: Hamas terrorists going back to killing Israelis, Israel proves, yet again, then it caves under pressure (hence motivating Hamas to capture more soldiers and bodies).