In this morning’s Washington Post, Daoud Kuttab describes how the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza have succeeded in rescuing Hamas from the political wilderness:
The lack of international support since the 2006 elections, followed by this rebuff to Gaza’s only Arab neighbor, Egypt, compounded the deterioration of Hamas’s internal support. By November, the survey showed, only 16.6 percent of Palestinians supported Hamas, compared with nearly 40 percent favoring Fatah. The decline in support for Hamas has been steady: A year earlier, the same pollster showed that Hamas’s support was at 19.7 percent; in August 2007, it was at 21.6 percent; in March 2007, it was at 25.2 percent; and in September 2006, backing for the Islamists stood at 29.7 percent.
While it is not apparent how this violent confrontation will end, it is abundantly clear that the Islamic Hamas movement has been brought back from near political defeat while moderate Arab leaders have been forced to back away from their support for any reconciliation with Israel.
That’s why, as the six-month cease-fire with Israel came to an end, Hamas calculated — it seems correctly — that it had nothing to gain by continuing the truce; if it had, its credentials as a resistance movement would have been no different from those of Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah. Unable to secure an open border and an end to the Israeli siege, while refusing to share or give up power to Abbas, Hamas could have had no route to renewed public favor.
For different reasons, Hamas and Israel both gave up on the cease-fire, preferring instead to climb over corpses to reach their political goals. One side wants to resuscitate its public support by appearing to be a heroic resister, while the other, on the eve of elections, wants to show toughness to a public unhappy with the nuisance of the Qassam rockets.
The disproportionate and heavy-handed Israeli attacks on Gaza have been a bonanza for Hamas. The movement has renewed its standing in the Arab world, secured international favor further afield and succeeded in scuttling indirect Israeli-Syrian talks and direct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. It has also greatly embarrassed Israel’s strongest Arab neighbors, Egypt and Jordan.
As cynical political calculations go, all of this is almost disappointingly obvious. The formerly ascendant parties, Hamas and Kadima, lose ground to their legacy rivals (Fatah and Likud, respectively). The cease-fire’s end and the approaching elections coincide, providing a campaign opportunity for both sides. Hamas offers a casus belli with rockets. Israel’s governing coalition returns the favor with a massive aerial bombardment, hoping to prove that Kadima’s Livni and Labor’s Barak can be just as mindlessly barbaric as Likud’s Netanyahu. Meanwhile, the collectively punished residents of Gaza rally around Hamas.
Hamas seems clearly the winner here, with things looking not so good for Kadima. I’m predicting a stalemate on the ground in Gaza followed by a narrow victory at the polls for Likud.