Swords of Iron

Containing Hamas is a bad but legitimate strategy

The commission of inquiry will stay away from dealing with the politically disputed issue even though it is critical to understanding the default.

The loathing that many Israelis feel for Benjamin Netanyahu makes it difficult to come to a fair assessment of the policy he adopted toward Hamas. His responsibility for the failure of the strategic conception of “containment” is presented by his critics as an undeniable truth that requires no proof.

Although I believe that Netanyahu’s diplomatic policy will ultimately spell the ruin of the Zionist dream, containment of Hamas is a legitimate strategy since a majority of the Israeli public supported it in the past and still supports it now.

Netanyahu will argue before the commission of inquiry that investigates the failures of October 7 that the colossal scenario of failure by the security forces that occurred was outside the realm of potential scenarios he had to consider as prime minister when he opted for appeasement and containment of Hamas.

It bears asking: Does the failure of the officials whose job is to reinforce the strategy necessarily mean that the strategy itself collapsed? Netanyahu, who likes to season his arguments with glib analogies, is liable to challenge those who question him: Imagine a doctor who is performing an operation to remove an inflamed appendix. One of the surgeon’s assistants is negligent and leaves a scissors inside the patient’s abdomen. An infection develops and the patient dies. In wake of the incident, the commission of inquiry appointed by the health minister decides to ban all appendix removal surgeries. Would that be a reasonable decision? Of course not. The negligence of the OR nurse does not negate the advantages of a lifesaving medical procedure.”

Netanyahu will likely tell the commission that a statesman must choose among options. Sometimes, in order to limit the damage, he must choose the lesser evil because no cost-free alternative exists. He could argue that the option of containing Hamas was meant to prevent the realization of an alternative that he and his voters considered catastrophic – the establishment of a Palestinian state. According to this logic, better to pay the bearable price of containing Hamas rather than the existential price of the alternative.

Netanyahu will not deny the costs entailed in the containment policy, which takes into account the existence of terrorist groups that are continuously trying to attack Israel. But he will say that the terrible massacre of October 7 transcends these considerations. That it was a security fiasco on a scale that could not be foreseen, that it falls under the responsibility of the security agencies, and therefore it does not attest to a collapse of the containment strategy.

The inquiry commission will not address the diplomatic issue that is a matter of political dispute, even though it is critical to understanding how the failure happened: The option of containing Hamas is not one that stands on its own, it is part of a broader containment strategy that is part of the overall Israel-Palestinian conflict.

The conflict means Israel is faced with two main alternatives: The first is continued control of the territories and their Palestinian inhabitants. The second is to strive for a political accord that would bring an end to the occupation and draw a clear border between Israel and the Palestinians.

The containment strategy is not unique to dealing with Hamas. It is a necessary policy tool if the option of perpetuating the occupation is selected. Perpetuating control over another people without national rights will led to outbursts of terrorism and violent incidents that are characteristic of a volatile binational reality. Even if Hamas’ power in Gaza is weakened, terrorist heirs to Hamas will arise that we will also have to contain. We will succeed in foiling some attempted terror attacks, but not all. Just as has been happening for decades in the West Bank.

Will the commission of inquiry be authorized to rule that Netanyahu should have chosen the strategic alternative that is not occupation and containment of Palestinian terrorism? The answer is no. The right to choose between the two basic alternatives, perpetuation of the occupation or a political accord, belongs to the Israeli voter.

This public has shown during the long years of Netanyahu’s rule that it rejects the alternative of an accord and prefers the alternative of the occupation. In other words, Netanyahu is not alone in his strategic conceptions. On the contrary, a majority of the Israeli public and the main political parties that represent this public share this vision and prefer the alternative of occupation and containment.

The inquiry commission’s hearings will focus on the severe failures of the army and the Shin Bet security service, and of course on the question of to what extent Netanyahu, as prime minister, is responsible for the failure of the executive branch. The containment alternative will not be examined in comparison to its only alternative – seeking a political accord.

Thus, the commission will not address the fundamental political failure: the lack of an Israeli initiative for resolving the conflict with the Palestinians, the only thing that could provide a strategic answer to terrorism while preserving Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.

The commission of inquiry will not deprive the Israeli public of the right to continue electing governments that prefer a perpetuation of the occupation and are therefore captive to the conception of managing the conflict and enslaved to the necessity of containment. But let us not take lightly the operative lessons that are gleaned from the investigation. In the foreseeable future, Israel will not have a government that seeks a political accord, and so the only option will be to improve the maintenance of the occupation and the containment strategy.

Published by Haaretz