Hamas vs. Israel: Winning the Diplomatic Game


There has been a great deal of violence for about a century in the geographic zone we may today call Israel/Palestine. This zone has seen a more or less continuous struggle between Palestinian Arabs and Jewish settlers concerning the rights to occupy land. Both groups have sought juridical affirmation of their rights. Both groups have sought legitimation in competing historical narratives. Both groups have sought to solidify levels of support from their “peoples” throughout the world community. And both groups have sought to get world public opinion on their side.

The way the game has been played has evolved because of shifting geopolitical realities. In 1917, British military occupied this area, ousting the Ottoman Empire, a shift that was thereafter consecrated by obtaining a Mandate from the League of Nations for a country called Palestine. Also in 1917, the British occupying government issued what is known as the Balfour Declaration, which asserted the objective of establishing a Jewish National Home in Palestine. The term “home” is unclear and its meaning has been a subject of controversy ever since. A series of decisions in the 1920s separated the Mandate into two parts. One was Transjordan (what is now Jordan) defined as an Arab state to become eventually independent. The other was Palestine west of the Jordan, to be governed differently.

In 1947, the United Nations sanctioned the partitioning of the area west of the Jordan into two separate states, one Jewish and one Arab. On the basis of this resolution, the Zionist leadership proclaimed the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. There followed a war – that is, more intensive violence that involved armed forces of states – between the new Jewish state and most Arab states, which culminated in a truce at different boundary lines than those the United Nations had proclaimed. There would be two further major wars, in 1967 and 1973. The 1973 war culminated in still different boundary lines, with Israel in de facto possession of what had been the entire area west of the Jordan.

The multiple wars changed the character and level of support both groups received. Whereas in 1947 support for Zionism still represented a minority position within world Jewry, the 1967 war and in particular the 1973 war seemed to transform attitudes and magnify the level of support, which became virtually unlimited. And whereas the three wars had all been fought by Arab states, after 1973 Palestinian Arabs sought to take political control of their struggle. Their new agency was the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a confederation of a wide range of Palestinian movements. Its largest member movement was al-Fatah, and its leader, Yasser Arafat, became the president of the PLO.

The PLO established its headquarters in Beirut. In 1982, Israeli armed forces entered Lebanon and sought to liquidate the PLO. It worked with some Lebanese Maronite organizations who massacred circa 2000 Palestinians and Shiite Lebanese in Sabra and Shatila while the Israeli army stood by. Even an Israeli commission later condemned the moral responsibility of the Israeli commander, Ariel Sharon, who was forced to resign. Under the protection of U.N. forces, the PLO leadership left Beirut for Tunisia. The war led to the creation of a Lebanese Shiite movement called Hezbollah, which grew stronger, and forced Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in the Second Lebanon War of 2006.

In occupied Palestine itself, there occurred two Palestinian insurrections (so-called Intifadas), which Israel found increasingly difficult to suppress. All this is the background context of the current war between Hamas and Israel, which is now ongoing and likely to continue for a long time. Militarily, Hamas is no serious danger for Israel. Economically, Israel is in reasonable shape whereas the Israeli blockade has caused Gaza to suffer from acute shortages in everything. But it is in the diplomatic sphere that the struggle is primarily occurring and here the sides are more even.

Israel’s position seems rather clear. It wants to use its military strength to “destroy Hamas” in the title words of the op-ed piece in the New York Times by Amos Yadlin, former chief of Israeli Military Intelligence. The Washington Post op-ed piece by Michael Oren, until recently Israel’s ambassador in the United States, is blunter. Oren says to Israel’s Western friends, stay out of this and above all do not try to obtain a truce until Israel has completed its work.

Hamas’s position is equally clear. Its leader, Khaled Meshal, has said that a truce is only possible if the eight-year-long blockade is lifted, for the Gazans are living “a slow death in the world’s biggest prison.” The steadily rising loss of lives, disproportionately of Palestinians, and the massive destruction in Gaza has led to worldwide calls for a “humanitarian truce,” including a unanimous motion in the U.N. Security Council.

The diplomatic game is who negotiates with whom. Initially, Egypt (unremittingly hostile to Hamas) proclaimed the terms of a truce, after consultation with Israel and without even informing Hamas. Later, world forces sought to include Hamas by excluding Egypt and negotiating with Hamas via Qatar and Turkey. The support of this initiative by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has led to a denunciation by the Israelis of his “betrayal.”

Both sides are playing for world public opinion. The Israelis count on de facto acceptance of their continued occupation of Palestine. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reaffirmed Israel’s intention to maintain forever its troops on the border with Jordan and Syria and to insist on the “demilitarization” of Hamas. Hamas is counting on the slow collapse of world support for Israel. Analytically, it seems clear that, in the middle run, Hamas will win this diplomatic game. It also seems clear that the Israelis will simply dig in. Instead of cheering on the new agreement between Hamas and the Palestine Authority, with its implicit acceptance by Hamas of a two-state solution, Israel will achieve its one-state solution with a vengeance. Israel may annihilate Hamas as an organization. What they will then get of course is not a group of acquiescent Palestinians but the advocates of an Islamic caliphate, a group that does not yet have a real presence in Palestine.