James M. Dorsey
Last updated: 24 October, 2011

Israel and Hamas: More in common than meets the eye

History may be repeating itself in the Middle East conflict with Israeli and Palestinian hardliners rather than moderates serving each other’s purpose. That is the rationale underlying the recent lopsided prisoner swap between Israel and the Palestinians and the political calculations of both Israel and Hamas.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is frozen in its tracks with little, if any, prospect of it gaining momentum. President Mahmoud Abbas’ effort to achieve United Nations recognition of Palestinian statehood in a bid to break the logjam is meanwhile mired in diplomatic red tape and likely to be foiled by a United States veto if it comes up for a vote in the Security Council.

Yet, true to form, hardliners on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide are finding common ground where moderates are grasping for straws. In doing so, they are reaffirming a long-standing fact of Israeli-Palestinian life: hardliners can service each other’s needs to mutual benefit without making the kind of heart-wrenching concessions that thwart the ambitions of peacemakers as well as Israeli and Palestinian moderates.

The prisoner swap in which Israel bought freedom for Corporal Gilad Shalit from five years in Palestinian captivity in exchange for the release of 1,027 prisoners, many of whom were responsible for deadly attacks in Israel itself, is the latest example of sworn enemies finding it easier to do business than those who propagate compromise and living in peace and harmony alongside one another.

Underlying, the swap is a belief on the part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas that there is no realistic chance for an agreement on peace on terms that would be acceptable to both Palestinians and Israelis. Mr. Netanyahu has so far been unwilling or unable given the nature of his coalition government to give Mr. Abbas the bare minimum he would need to push forward with peace without at least the tacit backing of Hamas, with whom Mr. Netanyahu officially refuses to negotiate.

For its part, Hamas refuses Israeli conditions for its inclusion in a peace process, including that it recognise Israel’s right to exist, abandon its endorsement of armed struggle and pledge allegiance to past Israeli-Palestinian agreements. If anything, the fact that it has achieved a tangible victory with the release of prisoners belonging to both Hamas as well as Mr. Abbas’ Al Fatah movement as opposed to the Palestinian president’s stalled statehood initiative has reinforced the Islamist movement in its conviction that its hard line is paying off.

Mr. Netanyahu appears determined to strengthen Hamas in its conviction not only by excluding Mr. Abbas from the prisoner swap, but by at the same time further undermining the Palestinian president with his decision to build a new Jewish settlement on the southern edge of Jerusalem and grant legal status to settlements established without his government’s approval. Mr. Abbas has made an Israeli freeze on settlements his core pre-condition for revival of peace talks with the Israelis.   

To be sure, like Mr. Abbas, Mr. Netanyahu has to throw a bone to his domestic critics. But unlike Mr. Abbas, Mr. Netanyahu is hardly embattled and has made his most hardline critics part of his coalition. Mr. Netanyanhu and Israel’s right-wing moreover agree on fundamentals: a rejection of an Israeli return to the borders prior to the 1967 conquest of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and a perception of a nuclear-armed Iran as the foremost threat to the existence of the Jewish state.

Hamas rather than Mr. Abbas offers Mr. Netanyahu the space to build Israeli policy on those two principles. Hamas’ refusal to meet Israeli conditions for peace negotiations proves the Israeli prime minister’s assertion that Israel has no Palestinian partner with which it can do business.

At the same time, Hamas has proven that it can and will make temporary arrangements with Israel like the prisoner swap or a ceasefire that safeguards Israeli towns from Palestinian rocket attacks. Hamas has moreover, contributed its bit to weakening Mr. Abbas by effectively thwarting the Palestinian leader’s efforts at reconciliation so that Palestinians can confront Israel with a unified front rather than a crippling political divide.

The possibility of Hamas’ external wing moving its operations from embattled Syria, Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world, to post-Mubarak Egypt, which engineered the prisoner swap, further serves Mr. Netanyahu’s purpose of clearing the deck for possible pre-emptive military action against Iran.

Lingering in the background, is uncertainty of what Israel’s immediate neighbourhood may look like. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is battling for his life with no sign of eight months of mass anti-government protests subsiding despite a brutal crackdown. Jordan’s King Abdullah has so far been able to contain demands for political reform and greater economic opportunity. He hopes that this week’s swearing in of prime minister-designate Awn Kawasmeh, an International Criminal Court judge of Palestinian descent, will keep at bay the brunt of the popular revolt sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.

That could prove easier said than done. Jordanian opposition forces, including the Islamic Action Front, which like Hamas traces its roots to the Muslim Brotherhood, has already rejected an approach by Mr. Kawasmeh to join his cabinet. The opposition insists that King Abdullah first agree that King Abdullah surrender to parliament the right to appoint and dismiss the prime minister and the government – a demand the monarch has so far refused to meet.

Ironically, Israel’s military and a phalanx of former senior Israeli military commanders constitute the greatest threat to Mr. Netanyahu’s policy designs and may offer Hamas its best chance yet of becoming a player in peace talks with Israel and the dominant force in Palestinian politics. While Israel’s military appears split on the prospect of a pre-emptive strike against Iran at least half of the retired leaders of Israel’s military and intelligence services have publicly rejected Mr. Netanyahu’s strategic thinking.

Perhaps, most vocal among them is Meir Dagan, a former head of Mossad and head of covert operations dubbed a ‘hawk’s hawk’, has not only blasted Mr. Netanyahu’s hard line toward Iran but also called for Israeli acceptance of a nine-year old Saudi peace plan endorsed by all Arab states that offers Israel full diplomatic relations in exchange for a complete withdrawal from Palestinian lands occupied in 1967.

No doubt, Mr. Dagan, Hamas’ nemesis who is credited with the death of hundreds of its operatives, has political ambitions as well as the military credentials that Mr. Netanyahu lacks. His willingness to entertain the Saudi proposal would open the door to Hamas to take its seat at the table.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer