One clever-sounding argument, featured on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times, is that while Israel has a moral right to retaliate against Gaza, it would still be a strategic mistake. The Gaza campaign will cause Palestinians to rally around Hamas, weakening the more moderate Fatah in the West Bank. In other words, Israel needs to take it easy to strengthen the moderates. (Given that a Fatah group has claimed responsibility for today’s bus bombing in downtown Tel Aviv, the moderation seems notional.)
The opposite is true: Not responding would boost Hamas. Surely Hamas would be strengthened, its popular prestige boosted, if it could strike Israeli cities with impunity, as they have over the past many years. This shows Hamas is aggressive and fearless; Israel, paralyzed by Hamas’s rocket arsenal and the prospect of international criticism.
But there is a more fundamental problem with the strengthen-Fatah trope. Hamas is gaining strength – but not because of any Israeli acts or omissions. The rise of Hamas is just the local instance of a general rise in Islamist movements across the Middle East, and the Muslim world. Indeed, the rise of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood to power in neighboring Egypt only boost the legitimacy, and apparent inevitability, of Hamas.
The decline of Fatah is even more over-determined. Fatah is a secular Arab nationalist movement. Article 1 of the Fatah charter spoke only of pan-Arabism, not of Palestine. Thus it is part of an ideology that once reigned across the Arab world – from Libya to Syria. It was an exciting movement that inspired millions, and the Fatah leadership was just the local manifestation – with the same authoritarianism, cronyism and corruption that made the other regimes so unpopular.
Now, it is an anachronism, a throwback. With Assad crippled, Fatah remains the last Arab nationalist party standing – and ironically, this delicate fossil only survives in the museum protected by the IDF. Everyone wants to be on the winning team. Fatah’s team doesn’t exist anymore, and so it should not be surprising that is prestige and influence wanes. Israel can no more stop this than it can resurrect Nasser.
This is why Gulf sheiks started paying visits to Hamas before the current campaign began. And why Israel must consider the future of the West Bank not on the assumption that Fatah will be there forever.
Ideas matter, and they play out on a large scale through the Middle East – pan-Arabism, Nasserism, socialism, and now Islamism. Israel does not make the weather.