In many ways, the current battle between Israel and Hamas is a familiar one. Hamas persists in launching rockets into Israel; Israel responds by targeting Hamas’ leaders and its rockets, and amasses troops for a possible invasion; Hamas launches potentially deadly but largely ineffective missile attacks at Israeli population centers; the world fixates on inadvertent Palestinian civilian casualties; and the U.S. publicly supports Israel while privately trying to defuse the situation.
But there’s something new and different this time — the context, specifically the “Arab Spring.”
The New York Times makes this point in story captioned “An Outgunned Hamas Tries to Tap Islamists’ Growing Clout.” That headline and the opening paragraph say it all:
Emboldened by the rising power of Islamists around the region, the Palestinian militant group Hamas demanded new Israeli concessions to its security and autonomy before it halts its rocket attacks on Israel, even as the conflict took an increasing toll on Sunday.
Hamas hopes that, given the rise of Islamists in the region, it can negotiate a long-term cease fire that, in the words of the Times, will “put Hamas in a stronger position than when the conflict began” by, among other things, “ending Israel’s five-year-old embargo of the Gaza Strip.” Hamas will expect the new Islamist regime in Egypt to help broker such a deal. And the Egyptian regime will want to meet that expectation both for its own ideological reasons and to satisfy the Egyptian public.
In other words, to quote the Times again, “Hamas’s aggressive stance in the cease-fire talks is the first test of the group’s belief that the Arab Spring and the rise in Islamist influence around the region have strengthened its political hand, both against Israel and against Hamas’s Palestinian rivals, who now control the West Bank with Western backing.”
It follows that the stakes are enormously high for Israel. To the extent it makes concessions, the unmistakable signal will be that the “growing clout” of Islamists in the Middle East extends beyond the internal affairs of particular states (or crumbling former states) to the point that it constrains and weakens Israel. And to the extent that the rise of Islamists stemming from the “Arab Spring” can be viewed as turning the tide against Israel, the movement will become both irresistible and increasingly focused on defeating Israel. Indeed, failing regimes, such as Egypt is likely quickly to become, will be better able to mask or circumvent failure by pointing to their role in assisting anti-Israeli militants in an increasingly fruitful struggle against Israel.
That’s why Israel must make sure that this iteration of the battle between Hamas and Israel ends badly for Hamas. Concessions on the embargo of Gaza should be out of the question. But so too should anything short of the serious degradation of Hamas in Gaza.
There are many givens in the current confrontation. World opinion is against Israel; journalists are against Israel; Obama is probably neutral at best. Israel can’t control any of that. But it can control the outcome of the confrontation. And the outcome will, in turn, determine whether this first great test case of the Arab Spring as applied to Israel encourages or discourages Arabs to believe that the triumph of their extremism will lead to triumph over Israel.