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Has Hamas Won?

Hamas has flipped the script of a militarily invincible Israel and exposed the fragility of its international support, prompting hard questions about its long-term sustainability. It is up to the West, moderate Arab states, Israel and the Palestinian Authority to deny them any kind of final victory.

It's possible that Israel's ongoing military campaign in Gaza will eventually eliminate Hamas's military leadership there, either by killing figures such as Yahya Sinwar and others or forcing them into exile. But it is equally arguable that Hamas has already won the first round in the struggle sparked by its appalling October 7 attack.

Hamas's goals – or at least those of the Hamas Gaza leadership – in launching the October 7 assault are still not clear, other than as a demonstration of their annihilistic antisemitic ideology. But they presumably had as a minimum objective obtaining the release of as many Palestinians held in Israeli prisons as possible, and of re-asserting themselves as a force to be reckoned with, including by demonstrating the inefficacy of Fatah and the Ramallah leadership – the latter of course already seen by many Palestinians as a bunch of corrupt collaborators.

On both fronts, Hamas has already succeeded, perhaps particularly because those Palestinians already exchanged for some of the Israeli hostages taken by Hamas on October 7 have returned to homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, not to Gaza.

Hamas has also already demonstrated that it is a force to be reckoned with, merely by surviving the IDF onslaught for longer than any war Israel has ever fought. In doing so, they have thoroughly dented Israel's much vaunted deterrent status. In brief, and with daunting potential long-term consequences for Israel, the IDF no longer looks invincible.

Whether they meant to or not, Hamas has also been successful at the regional level. They have at least for the moment created an effective roadblock in the way of Saudi-Israeli normalization, and raised the price Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will feel he needs to exact from Israel for such a deal to go down with his own population, and the "Arab street."

And at least for the moment, no country in the region wants to sign up to the Abraham Accords or anything like them, although the Saudis would have wanted their own tailor-made agreement rather than to sign up to a deal with anything resembling an Emirati label.

Other regional consequences are less clear-cut. While the Hamas attack undoubtedly worked to Iran's advantage in terms of putting both the Saudis and the Americans in a difficult position, and however much Hamas has over the years benefitted from Iranian support, Tehran does not appear to have triggered the October attack, and has seemed anxious not to overstep the line (although where that line is also not fully clear) and risk a full-scale conflict with the US and Israel. Israel's strike last week against senior IRGC officers in Damascus – on the assumption that it was an Israeli strike – will test that policy of restraint to the limit.

The crisis has also raised intriguing question marks over the extent of Iranian control over its allies in the region, particularly the Houthis.

On the international level, and however carefully the Biden administration has attempted to walk a tightrope and balance bottom line support for Israel with domestic, regional and international pressure for an end to the Israeli military action, the crisis has demonstrated America's waning ability to call the shots in the region and created space for others to seek to expand their influence, particularly Russia (which is also a huge winner in terms of the dramatic shift of international interest from Ukraine to the Middle East).

China is perhaps in a more difficult position, in that the crisis has exposed the fundamental weakness of Beijing's policy to date of trying to be nice to everyone, while ensuring oil supplies and promoting its commercial interests. The hollowness, for instance, of the March 2023 Saudi-Iranian pact brokered by China has been exposed.

Further pluses for Hamas, and Palestinians would assess for their cause more generally, has been the strain the crisis has put on U.S.-Israel relations, and the wave of countries now actively considering whether the time has come to recognize a Palestinian state, however fading the reality of such a prospect might be on the ground.

Indeed, Hamas has achieved what Palestinian Authority President Abbas has failed to achieve – putting the Palestinian issue back squarely on the international map, after years in which it has lingered in the "Too Difficult" tray while at the same time being seen as essentially manageable.

In doing so, Hamas has inter alia exposed the fragility of European support for Israel whatever the immediate reaction to the horror of October 7, in part because of the need to take account of the sensitivities of the large Muslim minorities in many European countries, but also because of a more general and increasingly widespread perception of Israel primarily as an occupying power denying Palestinians their rights, and (even more so, after the deaths of World Central Kitchen staff) of the current IDF campaign as disproportionate and indiscriminate, even genocidal.

Indeed, the head-spinning speed of Israel's post October 7 delegitimization in the eyes of many in the world can be seen as further evidence of Hamas's "victory."

What happens next remains murky. If Hamas has scored several points, and if they have also ensured that the world and the region cannot go back to October 6, one can only hope that their victory will prove hollow, including as regards their support base in Gaza where the entirely predictable (by Hamas) destruction being wrought upon the local population may be further eroding their support base there.

If Hamas' agenda is, as seems likely, a long-term one, then it is up to the rest of us – the West, and those Arab states which are as opposed to Hamas and its ideology as we are, and of course Israel and the PA (who else is there?) – to work with greater seriousness, energy and unity than in the past to deny them any kind of final victory.

The key of course is somehow to put together a package putting an end to the current fighting and securing the release of the remaining Israeli hostages, both those alive and the bodies of those who have died. It would also need to open the way to Gaza reconstruction and a wider negotiation to resolve the underlying, seemingly intractable issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The stumbling blocks to such a package are massive. The understandable further hardening of Israeli opinion against the creation of a potential Palestinian "terror state" is also a factor. But my own worry has long been that a number of factors, including the settlement enterprise in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the ongoing shift to the right in Israeli society and politics plus – on the Palestinian side – the inadequacies of the Ramallah leadership, mean that the window for a two-state solution, which would have been the right solution to a problem involving two valid nationalisms, is now closed.

If so, the trouble is that for the foreseeable future there is no alternative solution, other than a continuing conflict which is in the tragic process of corroding both societies.

But the greater problem might be Israel's. It seems likely to be trapped back into an explicit – rather than the previously implicit – occupation of Gaza. Given the fundamental irreconcilability between the "one-state" space which is de facto being created between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, and the dream of a demographically-sound Jewish state driven as that vision is by centuries which sadly proved Jews were not safe elsewhere, the future looks decidedly challenging.

Some Israeli hardliners may dream of resolving this dilemma by expelling, or somehow "encouraging," the movement of millions of Palestinians to Egypt and Jordan. But even if such a possibility were realistic, it would lead to the destabilization of the Hashemite Kingdom to Israel's major strategic disadvantage, and would cause a possibly unhealable breach in Israeli-Egyptian relations given the inevitable Egyptian opposition to any such move.

A Trump victory in November might be welcomed by Netanyahu and some others in Israel, but, on the evidence of his previous presidency, would only exacerbate the underlying tensions and consolidate the risks to Israel's long-term sustainability in the region.

As someone who knows many Israeli and Palestinians who have been working for a peace I doubt they will ever see, my heart is breaking, although despair should never be a policy option.

Sir Tom Phillips