As June opened, it was easy to joke that an honest headline writer could only proclaim “Hamas Gives Up Control of Gaza; Israel Outraged.” But with the abduction of three Israeli teenagers who were reportedly hitchhiking in the West Bank, it is clear that the implications of the current political situation are not funny. Yes, the Hamas ministers who governed Gaza since its 2007 split with the West Bank have left office to pave the way for a technocratic Cabinet trying to reunite the Palestinians. And yes, Israel is outraged.
But now three young lives hang cruelly in the balance. And whatever their fate, the region’s leaders seem able to produce only short-term, reactive policies that expose their own political bankruptcy. In the absence of even a pretense of a peace process, episodic violence, escalating rhetoric and unilateral actions are all they have to offer.
Without new leadership or new ideas, we are only likely to see further descent into the ugliest forms of conflict. The Israeli, American and Palestinian leaderships all seem powerless in the face of forces they themselves have unleashed by action and inaction. Those forces have not merely buried two-state diplomacy, but now also threaten to transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into an inconclusive generational struggle with neither winners nor resolution.
For its part, the Israeli leadership has imposed a clampdown on the West Bank generally, arrested a wide swath of Hamas leaders and deployed harsh rhetoric — extremely threatening against Hamas, and contemptuous of Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority that he leads. Whether the Israeli government can rescue the teens is unknown.
Meanwhile, the rhetorical bluster cannot obscure the underlying problems for Israel’s leaders that only a few will openly admit. First, “security cooperation,” as it is called — in which P.A. security forces help prevent attacks on Israeli targets and suppress anti-Israel activity — has worked to greater and lesser degrees over the past two decades. Life for Israel (and for Israelis) has been better with it than without it.
Second, the existence of the P.A. itself is a net plus for Israel, which is why it continues to collect taxes on its leadership’s behalf. The collapse of Palestinian autonomy would undermine Israeli security, likely burden Israel fiscally and damage Israel internationally.
Third, the existence of a Hamas government in Gaza, noxious as it was, not only led to considerable restraint on the part of Hamas, but also led the self-styled “resistance”] movement to force others to scale back their “resistance.” That generally meant less violence; because Hamas had something to lose in Gaza, it usually held its fire.