Time to try a new option

The partial opening of the Rafah crossing by Egypt’s military rulers, coupled with the anticipation of another Turkish-led naval flotilla seeking to breach the Gaza blockade, provide a timely opportunity to review the logic of Israel’s restrictions on movement into and out of the Strip. The Egyptian move also raises the issue of Gaza’s future relationship with Egypt, Israel and the West Bank.

There was never any compelling strategic logic behind Israel’s refusal to allow civilian goods into Gaza. The idea of punishing 1.5 million Gazans so that they would remove Hamas from power was pointless and counterproductive: it impoverished the Gazan farmers and industrialists–the people with the most interest in cooperative economic relations with Israel–and empowered tunnel-diggers and others who enjoyed close relations with Hamas. It also gave Israel a bad name. And it had no effect at all on Hamas’ readiness to release Gilad Shalit for a reasonable price. In this sense, the only good thing that came out of last spring’s Turkish flotilla was Israel’s relaxation of that boycott.

But preventing the entry by land of dual-use items and maintaining a naval and air blockade make sense. Israel has enough problems with Hamas’ aggression against Israeli civilians without allowing it to augment its arsenal of weapons. Egypt has until now cooperated closely with Israel’s military (and economic) boycott efforts, though without having to pay a price in terms of international condemnation. The opening of the Rafah crossing does not appear to violate Egypt’s own rules for restricting the entry of weaponry and terrorists: there will continue to be limited passage through the tunnels and virtually none through the actual land-crossing. Egypt’s military rulers will continue to cooperate with the Israel Defense Forces regarding Sinai and Gaza security; the border opening is a relatively symbolic gesture toward the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, whose loyalty the military rulers are cultivating.

In other words, the Egyptian military wants Gaza and Hamas to continue to be Israel’s problem–militarily, politically and economically. It will, as with past instances, be prepared to off-load the next Turkish blockade-breaching flotilla at El-Arish and transport the goods to Gaza by land. But that is not likely to happen, insofar as the flotilla organizers seek not the well-being of Gazans but rather once again to de-legitimize and isolate Israel, with Gaza as the excuse.

What, then, should Israel do about Gaza and Hamas, particularly in view of the Egyptian-sponsored Hamas-Fateh reconciliation agreement that poses the specter of closer coordination between the West Bank and Gaza? There appear to be three alternative options.

One is the status quo: muddling through with a partial blockade, withstanding flotillas and international pressure, threatening to break or weaken ties with the PLO and Palestinian Authority if Hamas as currently constituted (rejecting the Quartet’s three conditions) is integrated into them, and refusing to negotiate with a Palestinian leadership that includes Hamas. This promises more isolation and international anger but, barring some major strategic disaster, allows Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to achieve his primary objective of political survival. It is no more likely to bring down Hamas and restore PLO rule in Gaza than any of the abortive measures Israel has adopted thus far.

A second option is radical: seal the Gaza-Israel land border, open its naval and air boundaries and challenge Egypt to deal with the problem of an Islamist entity on the two countries’ border. This, in effect, generates a "three-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict–not necessarily the worst outcome from Israel’s standpoint. But it is liable to muddy Egyptian-Israeli relations at a critical moment and to inflate Gaza into a pro-Iranian Islamist fortress, armed to the teeth, on the shores of the Mediterranean.

A third option, also radical, is to offer to relax the blockade to the maximum without incurring military dangers and to accept Hamas as an enemy Israel has to try to talk to without political preconditions, as long as Hamas maintains a ceasefire and returns Gilad Shalit for a reasonable price. Neither Egypt nor the PLO, both of which now deal openly with Hamas, could object to in effect being outflanked by Israel. This option, too, could conceivably generate or perpetuate a three-state reality. Prior coordination could seek to ensure Quartet backing; in any case, the Russians and some Europeans are already engaging Hamas or moving in that direction. This would be particularly needed if the Israeli opening leads nowhere, Hamas does not reciprocate, and restrictions on Gaza are re-imposed.

Under the circumstances, the third option is worth considering.