Traditionally, Israel's only truly abundant and reliable resource has been enemies. But never one quite like Hamas. No matter what Israel has tried -- undermining its power base, annihilating its leadership, sapping its international backing, bleeding it, jailing it, starving it, expelling it -- Hamas has always emerged with new might.
Never has Israel had an enemy so perfectly attuned to the Jewish state's weaknesses, so impervious to its strengths. For more than 20 years -- ever since Israel inadvertently midwifed the founding of Hamas at the outset of the first intifada -- the organization has leveraged Israel's every tactic into tangible, stepwise political gain.
Now, at long last, Benjamin Netanyahu has a chance to beat Hamas at its own game. He can free Gilad Shalit. Or he can do nothing, and lose again. It is finally time for Israel to radically revise its thinking about Hamas. To say that Israel's policies toward it have failed, is to only hint at the magnitude of the failure.
In the last decade alone, resolute and wrongheaded governments have paved the way for one Hamas victory after another. They allowed Sharon his walk in the Temple Mount, putting an effective end to peace talks. They crippled Fatah-Palestinian Authority forces in an onslaught at the onset of the ensuing second intifada, leaving Hamas untouched and emboldened. They denigrated and shunned the PA in the disengagement from Gaza, which allowed Hamas to claim the withdrawal as a personal triumph. They resisted the deployment of international peacekeepers to curb rocket fire. The overwhelming force applied during the Gaza War -- against a Hamas enemy which in large part refrained from combat, led to serious civilian losses and international condemnation. Most recently, and most profoundly, the siege of Gaza intended to topple Hamas has backfired into one of Hamas' principle triumphs, especially since the flotilla fiasco.
Why is it that time after time, Israel sets a trap for Hamas and is shocked to find itself falling straight into it? Beyond everything else, our inability to successfully confront Hamas has to do with that most tragic and deep-seated of our misconceptions regarding the Palestinians: the unshakable, eternal faith among Israelis that "we know the Arabs." Yet the actual equation is simple: It is Hamas that knows Israelis like no one else. Indeed, Israelis, at this point in time, don't even know themselves.
The long war with Hamas has changed Israel, and for the worse. It has in many ways robbed the country of the ability to make decisions courageously and independently. From suicide bombings to rocket attacks to its demands for Gilad Shalit -- Hamas has made many Israelis grow callous to the plight of Palestinians, as a whole, and to lose faith both in the efficacy of their own government and in the very possibility of peace.
Hamas remembers and exploits what we have forgotten: the underlying dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hamas understands that the basic motivating force of post-Holocaust Jews is fear, and that the basic motivating force of post-Nakba Palestinians is humiliation. Hamas understands that Israel's attempts to address its fears often cause Palestinians additional humiliation. And Hamas knows even better that Palestinians' attempts to redress their humiliation often deepen Israelis' fears.
On the face of it, Israel's aversion to meeting Hamas' terms for the release of Shalit are well founded. Many of the prisoners whose release the organization is demanding have commanded horrifying terror operations, and may even press for new attacks upon their release. And Hamas will certainly claim as a victory a deal predicated on its own terms.
But this week, two of the men who put Hamas commanders behind bars, two men who know the risks better than anyone -- former Shin Bet chiefs Yaakov Peri and Ami Ayalon -- publicly endorsed agreeing to the organization's terms. They declared that when all factors are taken into consideration, Israel must give precedence to the most fundamental promise it makes to its soldiers: to bring them home if captured, no matter what.
It is time for Israel to stop allowing Hamas to change it for the worse. The present government, adopting the organization's antipathy to peace talks, cites Hamas as an excuse for avoiding those talks. The previous government, declaring all-out war on Hamas, adopted its practice of waging war on civilians.
It is time for Israel to once again be Israel. To stick by the principles that once made this nation strong. To abide by the promises it made to those who are willing to risk everything in its name.
The irony is that to a remarkable degree, Hamas keeps its promises. Israel must do no less. The nation that cannot honor the faith of its own soldiers and their families is already dying at heart. Where Israel fails to be true to itself, Hamas wins.
Originally appeared on haaretz.com