29. Israel and Hamas: No Winners?

As casualties mount in the air war between Israel and Hamas, it is common to hear that there will be no winners. In "fuzzy wars" (see previous post) a clear-cut victory is seldom achieved. But does that mean that no one gains from the conflagration?

No. The costs are enormous, but there are parties on both sides that profit from the hostilities.

In perspective -- Prime Minister Netanyahu had failed to form a government, and his rivals were about to stitch together an unlikely majority dependent on Arab support. If an Arab party had actually joined the government, it would be the first time, and a major step in the integration of Israeli Palestinians.

That prospect has evaporated, for now, as right-wing leader Naftali Bennett has withdrawn his support. Yair Lapid, the centrist tasked with forming the government, has asked pointedly "why the fire always breaks out precisely when it's most convenient for the prime minister."

In short, Netanyahu may get another chance to form a government, and he might even succeed. And if not, he will use the war to mobilize support in a fifth election this fall.

Netanyahu may not have expected Hamas to launch rockets on Israel cities in response to clashes in Jerusalem. But the two raids on al-Aqsa mosque, third holiest site in Islam, happened on his watch, and clearly enabled him to step forward as Israel's staunch defender. The rocket attacks enabled him to take this to a level that pushed his political travails aside.

As for Hamas -- before the Palestinian elections were canceled, its support was dropping, from 34 percent to 30 percent in the most reliable recent poll (and only 36 percent in the Gaza strip despite -- or because of -- its overwhelming presence there). Its candidate for President, Ismail Haniyeh, was polling at 19 percent.

But the fortunes of Hamas have also been lifted by the winds of war. The organization used the Jerusalem clashes as occasion for launching extensive rocket attacks, knowing full well that Israel would respond with massive air attacks.

Despite the carnage, Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere will blame Israel for their losses and applaud whatever damage Hamas can inflict with its primitive weaponry. Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, on the West Bank, lose ground as they sit helplessly on the sidelines.

Given this dynamic, it is hard to see how the violence will stop soon unless outside forces (read the United States) bring maximum pressure. Netanyahu has clearly announced his intention to continue until the military capability of Hamas is severely degraded, whatever that means. This was also the aim in 2008-09, 2012, and 2014.

But Hamas rebuilds within a few years, so the cycle repeats. Is there no end to this deadly dynamic? Clearly there is no (feasible) military solution, only the remote hope of political answers. And this requires a strategy aimed at reducing support for Hamas, not fanning the flames that drive it.

And the first step is an immediate cease-fire, imposed if necessary over the reticence of those who gain from prolonging the agony.