Netanyahu and Hamas: A Love Story

The leadership of Hamas ought to consider giving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a distinguished service award for continually aiding the Islamist terrorist organization at the expense of its chief rival, the more moderate, Western-backed Fatah.

In recent months, no effort appears to have been spared to undermine the Palestinian Authority (PA). Netanyahu has repeatedly rebuffed PA President Mahmoud Abbas's demand to halt settlement activity as a condition for returning to the negotiating table, choosing instead to appease his right-wing base. Driven primarily by domestic political considerations, he has looked the other way as settlers have put up illegal outposts, concerned that any move to dismantle them would threaten the survival of his coalition. Recently, the Israeli premier approved the construction of 2,000 new housing units in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their future capital.

Rather than seek a grand deal that would have strengthened Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a widely-respected American-educated economist who was included in the December issue of Foreign Policy magazine's "100 top global thinkers for 2011," Netanyahu instead acquiesced to Hamas's demand for the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in return for Israeli captive Gilad Shalit. Whatever the merits of that deal, Netanyahu could have diminished its positive impact on Hamas by releasing additional Fatah prisoners as a gesture that would have increased the standing of Abbas, Fatah's leader, in advance of the presidential and parliamentary Palestinian elections scheduled for May -- a move which was recommended by the Israel Defense Forces' general staff.

In further defiance of his nation's security establishment, Netanyahu recently delayed the transfer of funds to the PA as punishment for the Palestinians joining UNESCO, and he has threatened to do so again if the Palestinians pursue their plan to form a national unity government. Israel collects about $100 million in tax payments monthly on behalf of the Palestinians as stipulated in the Oslo accords. These funds are vital to the Palestinian economy and cover the salaries of the Fatah-staffed PA security personnel, whom are tasked with the responsibility of foiling terror attacks from the West Bank. Withholding the PA's tax money, therefore, not only harms the Palestinians, but also endangers Israeli security.

Netanyahu's greatest gift to Hamas, however, has been his failure to seriously pursue a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Peter Beinart has pointed out, had Netanyahu agreed to pick up from where his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, left off in his negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, he might have prevented Abbas's desperate bid for statehood at the United Nations. Worse still, Netanyahu continues to reject Abbas's proposals for advancing the peace process, while refusing to provide a counterproposal.

The status quo benefits Netanyahu in the short term by enabling his coalition to remain intact, but it endangers Israel's long-term survival by emboldening Hamas and other opponents of a two-state solution -- all while Israel's demographic balance continues to shift in favor of the Palestinians. Moreover, absent progress toward the establishment of a Palestinian state, it is only a question of time before another violent uprising claims many more lives on both sides.

If Netanyahu's intransigence leads to the destruction of the PA and Abbas's and Fayyad's replacement with Hamas officials, peace talks will be delayed for years to come. Perhaps this is what Netanyahu is aiming to achieve.