How Hamas Won the War

It doesn’t really matter if Israel wins the battle.

Cruel Middle East ironies abound. And here's a doozy for you.

Why is it that Hamas -- purveyor of terror, launcher of Iranian-supplied rockets, and source of "death to the Jews" tropes -- is getting more attention, traction, legitimacy and support than the "good" Palestinian, the reasonable and grandfatherly Mahmoud Abbas, who has foresworn violence in favor of negotiations? Since the crisis began, President Obama seems to have talked to every other Middle Eastern leader except Abbas.

The Israeli operation against Hamas may yet take a large bite out of the Palestinian Islamist organization in Gaza, but the "Hamas trumps Abbas" dynamic has been underway for some time now and is likely to continue. I'd offer four reasons why.

Feckless Fatah

Abbas's party is in disarray. The Islamists' victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, its takeover of Gaza in 2007, Fatah's own sense of political drift, and the absence of a credible peace process created an opening for Hamas -- the religious manifestation of Palestinian nationalism. Had Yasir Arafat still been alive, Hamas would never have come as far as it has.

Arafat's death left a huge leadership vacuum in a political culture where persona, not institutions, figures prominently. Abbas had electoral legitimacy but he lacked the authority, street cred, and elan of the historical struggle. And in a Palestinian national movement without direction and strategy, it didn't take much to create an alternative to a tired, divided, corrupt, and ineffective Fatah.

Hawks Rule the Roost

We don't like to admit it, but Middle East politics is the domain not of the doves but of hard men who can sometimes be pragmatists -- but certainly not in response to sentimental or idealized desires.

Peacemaking on the Israeli side has never been -- and is likely never to be -- owned by the left. From Israeli premiers Menachem Begin to Yitzhak Rabin (breaker of bones during the first Intifada) to Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, the story of the Arab-Israeli negotiations is one of tough guys whose calculations were reshaped by necessity and self-interest, and who could deliver something tangible to the other side while getting away with it politically at home.

Abbas may well be the best Palestinian partner Israel has ever had. But if he can't deliver, well, Houston we have a problem.

Being the darling of the West counts for something. For good reason, Abbas and his reality-based prime minister, Salam Fayyad, emerged as the great hope among the peace-making set: Here were reasonable, moderate men who eschewed violence and were actually interested in state-building. But could they actually deliver what various Israeli governments wanted?

Irony of ironies, it was Hamas that emerged as the object of Israel's real attentions -- the Islamist nationalists, it turned out, had what Israel needed and could deliver it. When Israel wanted a ceasefire, who did it negotiate with? Hamas, not Abbas. When Israel wanted Gilad Shalit back, who did it negotiate with? Hamas, not Abbas. Indeed, the astute Israel journalist Aluf Benn wrote last week that Israel killed the de facto head of Hamas's military wing -- Ahmad al-Jaabari -- because he was no longer willing or able to play the role of Israel's policeman, squelching Hamas and jihadi rocket fire into Israel. In exchange for doing so, Benn posits, Israel shipped in shekels for Gaza's banks and support for Gaza's infrastructure. Jaabari had street cred and delivered for four years -- Abbas has little and couldn't.

Netanyahu's Comfort Zone

Bibi is who he is. Right now, he's a legitimate Israeli leader who may well be the only political figure capable of leading the country. Whether he can lead Israel to real peace with the Palestinians is another matter entirely.

It's politically inconvenient to admit it, but given Bibi's world view -- which is profoundly shaped by suspicion and mistrust of the Arabs and Palestinians -- he's more comfortable in the world of Hamas than of Abbas. This is a world of toughness, of security, and of defending the Jewish state against Hamas rockets, incitement, and anti-Semitism. Hamas's behavior merely validates Netanyahu's view of reality -- and it empowers him to rise to the role of heroic defender of Israel.

Netanyahu didn't seek out a war over Hamas's rockets, which threaten an increasing number of Israeli towns and cities. But he is truly in his element in dealing with it. Sure he'd like to destroy Hamas and negotiate with Abbas -- but on his terms. Indeed, the world of a negotiation over borders, refugees, Jerusalem is a world of great discomfort for Netanyahu, because it will force choices that run against his nature, his politics, and his ideology.

Hamas isn't a cheap excuse conjured up to avoid negotiating with the Palestinians, of course. But the fact that Abbas can't control Hamas and that Arab states, particularly Egypt, now embrace it openly is precisely why Bibi believes he must be cautious in any negotiations. He may intellectually accept the possibility that the absence of meaningful negotiations actually empowers Hamas. But never emotionally. If you see the world through an us vs. them filter, you're rarely responsible for the problem -- it's almost always the other guy's fault.

The Islamist Spring

Even while their publics identified with the Palestinian cause, the Arab states never really trusted the Palestinian national movement and its organizational embodiment, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

With the exception of Egypt, every Arab state bordering Israel had a bloody conflict with the PLO. For these states, Palestinians represented a threat either from refugee populations or from the possibility that the Palestinian armed struggle would drag the Arabs into an unwanted or untimely war.

Tensions and differences still persist. But the Arab -- really Islamist -- Spring has created a major new realignment.

The real diplomatic coup for the Palestinians isn't Abbas's effort toward winning statehood recognition at the United Nations. It's the victories and growing influence of Islamists in Arab politics, which have given Hamas greater respectability and support. Two of Israel's most important Middle East friends -- Turkey and Egypt -- are now running interference for Hamas as their own ties with the Israelis have gotten colder. And these new allies aren't outliers like Iran and Syria. They are friends of the United States and very much in the center of the international community.

Where's Waldo?

It's testament to the weakness of Abbas and the PLO that it is Hamas's rockets, not Abbas's diplomacy, that has placed the Palestinian issue once again on center stage. The Palestinian president is nowhere to be found.

For all the attention paid to Abbas's statehood initiative this month at the U.N. General Assembly, it seems truly irrelevant now. And once again, this is confirmation of the fact that events on the ground determine what's up and down in Israel and Palestine. And Hamas is getting all the attention. Within the last month, the Qatari emir traveled to Gaza bearing gifts and cash, the Egyptian prime minister visited, and an Arab League delegation is planning to arrive soon. Turkey's foreign minister is also talking about a visit of his own.

So where does all of this go? The Middle East is notorious for rapid reversals of fortunes. Hamas is hardly 10 feet tall and a master of strategic planning. It can no more liberate Palestine or turn Gaza into Singapore than Abbas could. And maybe the Israelis will succeed in delivering it a significant blow in the coming days. You have to believe that Abbas hopes so and is feeding them targeting info.

And since so many people have a stake in the idea of the two-state solution, Abbas will continue to play a key role. It would be nice to imagine that somehow, in some way, Fatah and Hamas would unify -- with Abbas in the driver's seat -- producing a national movement that had one gun and one negotiating position, instead of a dysfunctional polity that resembles Noah's Ark, with two of everything. And it is a wonderful thought that the so-called Islamist centrists would lean on Hamas to do precisely that.

But this isn't some parallel universe of truth, brotherhood, and light that offers up clear and decisive Hollywood endings. It's the muddle of the Middle East, where risk-aversion and the need to keep all your options open all too often substitutes for bold, clear-headed thinking -- guaranteeing gray rather than black and white outcomes.

Hamas and Fatah will survive, even as they both remain dysfunctional and divided. Both serve a perverse purpose -- keeping resistance and diplomacy alive, respectively, but not effectively enough to gain statehood. Israel will continue to play its own unhelpful role in this enterprise. And for the time being neither Palestinian movement is likely to give the Israelis any reason to change their minds.

The conundrum is crystal clear: Hamas won't make peace with Israel, and Abbas can't. The way forward is much less so.


Reality Check

Does It Matter Who the Next Secretary of State Is?

Whether Kerry, Rice, Donilon, or somebody else is named America's top diplomat, there will be one man in charge in Foggy Bottom -- Barack Obama.

There's nothing quite like being secretary of state.

Where else do you get your own plane, really cool digs on the seventh floor, and access to the eighth floor -- with its extraordinary art, furniture, and amazing collection of Americana?

No other job gives you a chance to jet the globe, defending the republic's interests and radiating a high-minded bipartisanship to boot. What's more, the gig comes with a shelf life that all but guarantees you media and policy relevance for years to come (just ask every secretary of state since Henry Kissinger).

So you can bet your pinstripe pants or pantsuit that whomever BHO taps to replace Hillary Clinton is going to accept without hesitation, reservation, or even so much as a prenup.

But here's my question: Does it really matter all that much whom the president chooses? Whether it's John Kerry, Susan Rice, Tom Donilon, or some mystery candidate who will surprise us all, the next secretary will have to deal with Barack Obama, withholder-in-chief -- a guy who dominates and doesn't delegate big foreign-policy decisions.

Maybe I'm wrong about the U.S. president's preternatural tendency to control everything. Perhaps in his second term, a more confident Obama will empower a true loyalist -- someone he really trusts, like Susan Rice -- and allow him or her to run with some truly big issues.

But don't count on it.

It's true that all presidents guard their control over foreign policy, but Obama has been more protective than most. Not since Richard Nixon and Watergate shadow president Henry Kissinger ran the show have we seen an administration where all power on the big issues ran in and out of the White House.

Don't get me wrong. Clinton has been a very fine secretary of state.

She was a veritable star on the international stage and did terrific work in improving America's image abroad. She fought for her department and pursued an innovative 21st-century agenda -- call it planetary humanism: women's rights, technology, LGBT issues, democracy promotion, and the environment. She did good work on Libya too.

But did she own and dominate -- on behalf of the president -- a single issue of strategic consequence pertaining to peace or war? There were some issues that the military, CIA and White House appropriately dominated -- think Afghanistan, Iraq, and the war on terrorism. But on others -- Arab-Israeli peacemaking, the U.S.-Israel relationship, and the big think on Iran strategy -- the White House exclusively dominated discussions where the State Department could have played a central role.

The president must be the final decision-maker on foreign policy. But the secretary of state should become -- or at least in the past became -- an architect of his policies. That means crafting strategy, selling it to the president, and working together with a team of envoys and experts to implement it.

Think about what might happen if you actually empowered the secretary of state to be America's top diplomat. That person might then be able to think through priorities, consider how means and ends align, and develop real options on a tough issue and a strategy for how to coordinate messaging -- not as a thought experiment, but with real purpose.

This secretary of state would be empowered to fend off unhelpful bureaucratic meddling. There would be a designated team to support him or her, including the National Security Council and interagency representation. The world would know that it was the secretary of state who spoke for the president -- there would be no end runs, no phone calls from leaders seeking to head off initiatives they didn't like.

Best of all, the secretary could do the spade work and set up situations in which it might be possible to use the president to close a deal. This would husband valuable presidential currency and deploy the president only when it was really necessary.

And with a little luck, you might actually start to develop -- dare I use the phrase -- a foreign-policy strategy, a term that one White House official dismissed last year as being … so "19th century."

Will the president really use his secretary of state during a second term? He should. With the breadth of his domestic agenda and the screw-ups, carelessness, and even scandals historically associated with second terms, he could use the help.

But old habits die hard, particularly when the guy in charge thinks they work just fine. If Obama changes course, it may well be to appoint some special envoys, particularly on the Middle East peace process -- but unlike with George Mitchell, the last such envoy, this time reporting directly to the White House.

From Obama's point of view, the centralized approach on foreign policy seems to have paid off. He ran a pretty competent foreign policy -- no spectacular successes, but no spectacular failures either. Sure, there were some stumbles on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the consulate attack in Benghazi, not to mention a general lack of coherence on what was important and what wasn't. But hey, the world's a tough place.

Don't misunderstand. If the phone rang and it were the president asking me to become secretary of state, I'd take the job. But I'd do so knowing where I stood, and I would harbor no illusions that the nation's top diplomat is going to have a major role in shaping the nation's foreign policy over the next four years.