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As Gaza war winds down, who won the strategic contest?

Analysis: An inconclusive round of bloodletting may have improved Hamas’ political position and weakened Netanyahu’s

Four weeks of carnage in Gaza that killed more than 1,800 Palestinians and more than 60 Israelis appears to be drawing to an end without a decisive tactical conclusion. Hamas remains intact and in control of Gaza, which remains under a crippling siege maintained by Israel and Egypt. And despite earlier suggestions that Israel would avoid truce talks with Hamas, it has now sent representatives to Cairo to negotiate via Egyptian mediators. Déjà vu, then, to anyone familiar with the outcome of the 2009 and 2012 Israeli onslaughts on Gaza. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will struggle to sell his Gaza campaign as a success, by measure either of strategy or of expectations among the Israeli electorate.

Strategy, according to the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz, is the art of measuring the success of a particular military engagement by the extent to which it advances, or impedes, the combatants’ overall political goals. Consider, then, where the Gaza outcome has left both Israel and Hamas.

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Netanyahu’s claim to have delivered a "crushing blow" to Hamas has failed to convince even his own public. Israel has called a halt to its operation at a moment when the Hamas leadership is very much intact, as is its capacity to fire rockets at Israel. And Netanyahu’s rivals for leadership of Israel’s political right are alleging that it was the prime minister’s hesitancy that left Hamas standing.  

Politicians’ rhetoric aside, Israel’s military leadership was always clear that its mission in Gaza was not, in fact, to destroy Hamas. "There's an Israeli interest to have one address in Gaza, we don't want a Somalization in the Strip, but rather one group to enforce its control of the Strip," a senior IDF source told the Israeli news site Ynet. "This is why the collapse of Hamas was not defined as one of the objectives. We wanted to have an address on the other side on the day after."

Still, that leaves Netanyahu politically vulnerable to attacks from his right flank for failing to smash Hamas.

If anything, Israel’s offensive has improbably boosted that movement’s political and diplomatic standing. While Israel imagines that it can stick to the script traditionally backed by the U.S. and some Arab powers of seeking to isolate Hamas from whatever political process is pursued for resolving the conflict, former President Jimmy Carter warned on Tuesday that such a policy was bound to fail.

"Hamas cannot be wished away, nor will it cooperate in its own demise," wrote Carter, together with former Irish President Mary Robinson. "Only by recognizing its legitimacy as a political actor — one that represents a substantial portion of the Palestinian people — can the West begin to provide the right incentives for Hamas to lay down its weapons. Ever since the internationally monitored 2006 elections that brought Hamas to power in Palestine, the West's approach has manifestly contributed to the opposite result."

Hamas had, in fact, been on the ropes earlier this year, unable to pay salaries in Gaza following the regionwide counterrevolution that overthrew its Muslim Brotherhood allies in Egypt. The resulting desperation prompted Hamas to sign onto a unity agreement with Fatah on politically unfavorable terms that were questioned by many of the movement’s activists on the ground, effectively accepting a restoration of Palestinian Authority control over the territory from which Hamas had ejected its security forces in 2007. Israel and the U.S. had worked to prevent that agreement — which involved the creation of a unity government of technocrats — from being implemented. As a result of Operation Protective Edge, however, the Israelis have been forced to reconsider. Restoring control over Gaza by the Palestinian Authority, unity government notwithstanding, has now become part of Israel’s own thinking about a cease-fire — and the focus of diplomatic pressure by Israel’s allies. Even if such a scenario reduces Hamas control, if it results in an easing of the siege, Hamas will claim victory. 

Restoring PA control would also create a broader dilemma for Israel’s leaders that didn’t exist before Operation Protective Edge: Netanyahu had effectively walked away from the stalled U.S.-led effort to revive talks with Abbas over a two-state agreement, claiming in a speech on the eve of the Gaza operation that regional turmoil in Syria and Iraq had vindicated his reluctance to cede Israeli control of any territory it currently occupies. "I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan," said Netanyahu, effectively ruling out the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

The prime minister has, throughout his tenure, largely succeeded in putting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the diplomatic back burner, and making Iran’s nuclear program the centerpiece of Israel’s conversation with the international community. He also succeeded domestically in casting himself as the Israeli leader who had managed to bring "calm" while maintaining — and even expanding — the occupation, prompting many Israelis to begin believing that the status quo with the Palestinians was sustainable.

His war in Gaza has undermined those gains.

As Israeli analyst Ariel Ilan Roth wrote two weeks before Israel began drawing down, "Hamas’ strategic objective is to shatter Israel’s sense of normalcy. It is only possible for Israel to exist as a flourishing and prosperous democracy under the garrisoned conditions of persistent conflict when its citizens are able to maintain the illusion that their lives are more or less similar to what they would aspire to have in London, Paris, or New York."

On that score, wrote Roth, "Hamas has already won. It has shattered the necessary illusion for Israelis that a political stalemate with the Palestinians is cost-free for Israel." The Palestinian fighters proved far more resilient than Israelis had expected, and had inflicted substantial military casualties on Israel once the ground war began. Rocket fire had also struck the psychologically powerful blow of briefly closing Ben Gurion International Airport to international traffic, closing Israelis' lifeline to the world economy.

Roth also noted that Netanyahu had inadvertently once again internationalized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in a manner that had taken it out of his comfort zone. While governments in the West may have equivocated, civil society has been outraged by Israel’s conduct of the campaign in Gaza, and efforts to punish Israel through economic and cultural isolation have been given a major boost.

Even among Israel’s closest allies, it’s become clear that Netanyahu has not offered a strategy to resolve, or even effectively manage the conflict with the Palestinians. Even the tacit support he claimed from "moderate" Arab powers in Cairo and Riyadh for his campaign against Hamas doesn’t translate into endorsement for his vision of long-term occupation — on the contrary, a number of analysts have warned that the "price" of that support would be that Netanyahu would be forced to resume negotiations with Abbas, which was not his preferred option.

Whether or not Netanyahu will pay a political price at home will be determined when Israel goes to the polls next spring. Hamas, meanwhile, will be forced to reckon with a new reality in which its monopoly on authority in Gaza will be challenged under any cease-fire terms, although it will also be looking to make gains in the West Bank should the unity agreement’s promise of new Palestinian elections be realized. But in the wider strategic and diplomatic context, the 2014 Gaza war may have produced consequences that were not intended by its authors. 

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