The Islamists' attempt to carefully move toward seizing the reins of these popular movements is not limited to Egypt. The anti-government protests have been overtly Islamist in Jordan, while in Bahrain, radical Shiite Islamist opposition groups like the al-Haq party have rapidly risen to prominence.
Whatever the reason for Hamas's obvious lack of restraint in recent weeks, it is not helping the party's reputation in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Its popularity among Palestinians continues to decline: A mid-March opinion poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research had Hamas support at a mere 33 percent of people in Gaza and 21 percent in the West Bank. Fatah, on the other hand, enjoys 42 percent support in Gaza and 39 percent in the West Bank. Hamas's brutal crackdown on national unity rallies in Gaza on March 15, including the killing of at least one female protester, further discredited the organization. Perhaps Hamas hopes that another confrontation with Israel would bolster its foundering domestic credentials.
Israel's own overreaction through its excessive bombing campaign in Gaza may partly be driven by anxieties exacerbated by regional instability, but its right-wing government in Jerusalem may also see advantages to shifting attention to another violent confrontation with Islamists. Israeli leaders have made no secret of their deep distrust of the Arab reform movement and their anxiety about democratic governments in the Arab world. It's no stretch to imagine that Israel has concluded that it is better able to live with autocratic governments than secular, ecumenical, and democratic ones. And, of course, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has welcomed any opportunity to focus on security questions and place everything else on the back burner, as happened during the short-lived direct negotiations with the PLO last year. This wouldn't be the first time the Israeli right and Hamas rode to each other's rescue under the guise of conflict.
Another war between Israel and Hamas would, however, likely result in a lose-lose scenario for both sides. As with the last round, it would probably yield at best short-term political benefits but no long-term strategic changes, particularly because Israel is not prepared to fully reoccupy the Gaza Strip.
Even more worrying, a new war in Gaza could join the civil war in Libya, the sectarian confrontation in Bahrain, and the looming potential disintegration of Yemen in casting a negative pallor over what ought to be the beginning of an Arab political renaissance. It could set anti-Israeli and anti-Western sentiments into motion that have been largely absent from the productive impulses for reform in the region. It could also add to the sense that, however inspiring the Egyptian and Tunisian experiences may have been, subsequent developments risk spreading chaos -- thereby bolstering tolerance for the status quo.
The saving grace of the Arab Spring is that the movement for reform is based on domestic considerations -- accountability, good governance, democracy, and human rights. Even another bloody war between Israel and Hamas cannot avert attention from those grievances for long. Arab citizens likely know that agitating for good governance and accountability isn't a panacea for all regional ills and that it can sometimes be a bloody process, as the examples of Libya and Yemen show. Moreover, they realize that Islamism, while it has its constituency, is both divisive and a political dead end.
If Israel and Hamas believe it is in their interests to start -- or find themselves unable to avoid -- another mutually self-destructive conflict, it certainly won't aid the process of Arab reform and democratization, and raises some very troubling concerns about its future. But there's almost no chance a resurgence of the Israel-Hamas conflict can stop the reform movement dead in its tracks either.