As Clausewitz famously noted, “War is the continuation of policy by other means.”
Correspondingly, Israel’s military campaign in Gaza has had two objectives. First, to degrade and deter Hamas rocket teams. Second, to weaken Hamas as a political actor.
On both counts, Israel appears to be finding success. Rocket strikes from Gaza are decreasing in frequency, and Hamas is suffering major losses. Yesterday, 150 Hamas fighters surrendered to Israeli forces in the strategic Gaza–Egypt border town of Rafah.
Most significantly, however, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas is signaling a major split with Hamas.
On Wednesday, Abbas supported the Hamas “strings attached” negotiating position — accepting the idea of a ceasefire only so long as Israel loosens its economic blockade of Gaza. However, yesterday, following discussions with Jordan’s King Abdullah, Abbas said that Egypt’s ceasefire proposal, which includes no such concession and was previously rejected by Hamas, “should be approved.” This change in tone is a clear break in Palestinian unity. Conversely, Hamas chairman Khaled Mashal, insists his group won’t accept a ceasefire until the economic blockade of Gaza is lifted, Palestinian prisoners released, and border controls relaxed (all prerequisites Israel won’t accept). Repudiating Hamas, Abbas claimed that those issues could be addressed “after” any ceasefire.
As I explained last week, driving a wedge into the Fatah–Hamas unity government is a key priority for Netanyahu. In Israel’s assessment, any durable return to the peace process requires that Fatah first be strengthened and Hamas weakened. When Hamas rejected the original Egyptian plan, Netanyahu decided to pursue a far more aggressive strategy via ground invasion. He’s seeking a decisive outcome.
Still, it’s not clear whether Abbas’s new position will help foster an immediate ceasefire. For a start, as Isabel Kershner has reported, Hamas popularity in the West Bank has soared over the past couple of weeks. Addressing this popularity dynamic is a challenge for Abbas as he seeks a deal — he cannot allow himself to be painted as an Israeli pawn.
That’s exactly what Hamas will try to do. Driven by an insane ideological intransigence and viewing their fellow citizens as human pawns, Hamas leaders are refusing to budge. (While Palestinians live in misery, their leaders shelter in bunkers and opulent Qatari hotel rooms. Who said being a Sunni-Islamist revolutionary had to be a hard life?)
Regardless, Abbas’s words are a positive development. From Fatah, but more important, from Jordan and Egypt (both of whom Hamas dislikes but needs), Hamas faces new pressure to yield. Additionally, as Israeli commanders step up their operations, Hamas will find it increasingly difficult to resist reality on the ground in Gaza.
These developments mean that a ceasefire may now hinge on Qatar. Led by the authoritarian ultra-populist, Erdogan, Turkey’s desire for peace is unclear — the conflict allows him to rant. And until now, Qatar has supported Hamas with funds, shelter and influence. But with Iran distracted by its nuclear program and the Syrian civil war, Hamas has few other allies. Facing U.S. and regional pressure, Qatar may decide to force Hamas into serious negotiations. It’s important to remember that Qatar places supreme importance in balancing sympathy for terrorism (remember the Taliban five?) with international legitimacy (the World Cup . . . ).
If he wants a ceasefire, in other words, Kerry should go to Doha.