Two Gaza-related stories occupied the Israeli media and politics this week. The first is the visit of Qatar’s emir to Gaza, and the generous monetary contribution he made. The second, and more important, is of course the massive rocket attack launched against Israel.
The connection between the two relates to Israel’s overall policy on Gaza. Formal Israeli officials attacked the visit of the Qatar dignitary. This expresses Israel’s consistent policy of the last six-and-a-half years, adopted by the present government and its predecessor. According to this policy, the Hamas regime is not legitimate; thus every visit by a foreign official must be condemned and even averted if possible. The logic is that a Hamas regime in Gaza is bad for Israel, while the Palestinian Authority is our “natural partner.” Therefore we must make every effort to foil Hamas’ legitimacy, as their legitimacy weakens the Palestinian Authority.
This approach is wrong for six reasons. First, the formal reason: Hamas won the 2006 elections and its regime is more legitimate than almost any other Arab regime. Second, maintaining the West Bank and Gaza as one political entity is a Palestinian interest, but not an Israeli one. Third, every public Israeli attempt to strengthen Abu Mazen at Hamas’ expense has backfired. Fourth, it is in Israel’s interest that the Gaza Strip resemble a stable state; this is the only pathway to deterrence and to agreement on security issues. Fifth, it is in Israel’s best interests for Gaza to improve financially, which Qatar could help bring about. Such a financial improvement would create assets that any regime would want to protect from harm, causing the regime to be more moderate and cautious. Sixth, the weakening of the Hamas regime will not strengthen Abu Mazen’s status in the Gaza Strip, but instead strengthen more extreme agents who do not bear governmental responsibility.
In light of all this, Israel’s interests should be re-defined. We have no interest in influencing the Palestinian society's balance of power, nor in isolating Hamas. On the contrary, it is better for Israel that the Gaza-Egypt border remain completely open to the passage of peoples and merchandise. Israel’s only interest regarding Gaza is strictly security-related: to ensure that there is no shooting against Israel, and to prevent the power brokers in the Gaza Strip from equipping themselves with more threatening weapons. It is much easier to consolidate a clear policy when we do so on the basis of this one narrow interest. This policy has four components.
The first element: A powerful response against governmental targets in Gaza after any shooting episode against Israel. Our measured responses, only against the launchers of the rockets, do not achieve deterrence. Making distinctions between the various organizations is also mistaken: When we try to harm a specific organization that dared to shoot at us, then that ironically strengthens them politically as "coming out on top."
The second element: to close the crossings to Gaza and stop the supply of electricity and fuel in the wake of each shooting incident. (It is easier to explain this if Gaza is a state and its government bears responsibility. It is hard to defend this policy when we ourselves say that the Gaza regime is not legitimate.)
The third element: to encourage international economic assistance to Gaza, and not prevent visits of foreign officials to the Gaza Strip.
The fourth: To emphasize that as far as Israel is concerned, there should be free passage between Egypt and Gaza — and therefore, Gaza is not under siege.
Perhaps a large military operation (along the lines of Cast Lead) is needed before adopting this policy. I am not convinced of this. It will be enough when we stop pursuing all those who want to help Gaza economically, or want to recognize the de facto Gaza state, and start to focus only on our real interest: bringing quiet to the area. Let me emphasize here, and not for the first time, that an “interest” is not synonymous with a “heart's desire.” An interest is something important for which we are prepared to pay a price. The narrower is our interest, the easier it is to achieve, and at a lower price.