On Monday night, after hearing that three kidnapped schoolboys had been found murdered by terrorists in the West Bank, Israelis went to bed with heavy hearts.
On Tuesday morning they turned on the news and got headaches from the cacophony of politicians, government spokesmen and certified public pundits, all of whom had an opinion about what should be done. Everyone agreed that Israel must take action. But that’s all they agreed about.
In the absence of any new ideas, old talking points were recycled. Suburban liberal representatives wanted the matter to be treated like a police procedure – track down the killers, bring them to justice, put them in jail and then end the occupation, which is (they claim) the mother of all conflicts between Jews and Arabs.
Spokesmen for the settler movement mocked this idea by pointing out that, to Hamas, all of Israel is occupied territory. They called for a “Zionist response,” which is code for building more Jewish housing in the West Bank. Naftali Bennett, the leader of the religious Jewish Home Party, doubled down by suggesting that Israel begin legally annexing West Bank territory, damn international opinion.
Other cabinet ministers weighed in. Some wanted to step up the bombing campaign against Hamas installations that Israel launched the night before. Others called for targeted drone killings of the Hamas leadership. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman advocated a full-scale invasion and occupation that he claimed would put a stop to Hamas once and for all. All these ideas have been tried in the past. None has had more than limited success.
The minister of defense, Moshe “Boogie” Yaalon, advised everyone to think “with their heads, not with their stomachs” (a literal translation that makes more sense in Hebrew). But he didn’t disclose what his head was actually thinking. In the absence of such information, it is fair to assume that his head is not filled with original ideas. His words were taken to mean that he wants to keep fighting to a minimum. But Hamas is already firing rockets at Israeli towns. If one happens to land on a school or an apartment building, Yaalon’s stomach is going to tell his brain to shut up.
The man whose opinion matters most, of course, is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He is in his third term, he has served in combat and he tends to be both cautious and realistic about the use of military force. He also understands better than his colleagues that there is a wider, strategic opportunity buried in this crisis. It is located in the West Bank.
Hamas is not merely a Palestinian organization. It is a soul brother of Sunni jihadists like The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) which is currently conquering parts of Syria and Iraq and menacing America’s ally, Jordan.
Much against its will, the U.S. and the European Union are slowly confronting the danger that Sunni holy war poses to their oil, their interests and their domestic security.
Netanyahu wants them to see Hamas as a part of this threat, a fellow traveler in the sociopathic jihad. This, in turn, will enable them to see that the core problem in the Middle East is not, and never has been, Israeli intransigence or the occupation of Palestinian territory – and that Israeli withdrawal from the Jordan River is dangerous.
Military strikes against Gaza provide a roundabout way of demonstrating this. Netanyahu will demand – he is already demanding – that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dismantle his coalition government with Hamas. If Abbas goes along, score one for Bibi. But it is unlikely that Abbas will do any such thing, especially when Israeli planes and drones are targeting Palestinian Hamas fighters in Gaza.
The Palestinian street, in the West Bank as well as Gaza, likes extremism. Recent polls show that a great majority in both places hate Israel and reject a two-state compromise.
If Abbas respects his public opinion and maintains his alliance with Hamas, it will convince Israeli voters – who don’t need much convincing – that Abbas is much less moderate than his rhetoric.
This, Netanyahu hopes, will lead Israelis to understand that there is no partner for a long-term peace deal.
He hopes Obama (and maybe even a few European leaders) will get it, too.
Hamas is a pain in the neck, but it is manageable. The West Bank is the main event. Netanyahu wants long-term Israeli military control there. If he can accomplish that, he will have scored a first-rate strategic victory, whatever happens in Gaza.