Before the war against Hezbollah erupted in July, Israel’s biggest security problem was the ascent of Hamas to governing-party status in the Palestinian Authority. Whether the war will end up having brought an end to Iran’s proxy army or merely its temporary incapacitation, it is clear that the Hamas threat on Israel’s southern and eastern fronts will soon retake center stage. When that happens, we should all hope that American and Israeli policymakers will have read Matthew Levitt’s new book, Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad.
Anyone reading Hamas prior to the Lebanon war would not have been the least bit surprised by the kidnappings of Israeli soldiers at Israel’s southern and northern borders. Since its victory in the January 2006 parliamentary elections, Hamas has sought to continue its terrorism while simultaneously maintaining the prestige of an elected government. Months before the cross-border attacks, while pundits prognosticated about a kinder, gentler Hamas, Levitt was concluding his book with the following prescient observation:
Hamas will look north to Lebanon’s Hezbollah (Party of God) for a working model of a militant Islamist group that balances its political, charitable, and violent activities.... Hamas’ emulation of Hezbollah underlies the most significant parallels between the two militant Islamist groups: Tactical flexibility should not be mistaken for strategic change. Both organizations see politics, charity, political violence, and terrorism as viable, legitimate tools to pursue their goals. At times they stress certain tools over others, but at no time do they see these as mutually exclusive.
We are entering a time of searching for a new paradigm to govern the West’s strategy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict: The rise of Hamas to power and the war with Hezbollah have caused the collapse of the unilateral-withdrawal idea, whereas the Oslo strategy has been dead since the second Intifada laid bare its faulty assumptions. As we search for a new way to understand the Middle East, it is imperative that both Israel and the rest of the world see Hamas for what it really is. For this, Levitt’s book is a superb place to start.
Yechiel M. Leiter held senior positions in Israel’s Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Education. Currently he is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.