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Opinion: Hamas’ bet on the world is paying off

Opinion by Jason Greenblatt

(CNN) — The Biden administration may not have meant to play into Hamas’s hands when it shifted its harsh rhetoric toward Israel last week – but it did.

In a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Thursday in the aftermath of Israel’s deadly strike on a World Central Kitchen aid convoy, President Joe Biden adopted the position of the left flank of his party and called for an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza. Though Biden also urged Hamas to release the scores of Israelis believed to still be held hostage in Gaza, to date Hamas has steadfastly rejected the call, including again on Monday, and the Biden administration has not changed its tune.

Also on Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken appeared to suggest that Israel’s failure to prevent civilian casualties in Gaza put the Jewish state at risk of being no better than the terrorist organization Hamas. The administration prodded Israel with a vague threat about changing “US policy with respect to Gaza” if Israel did not take “specific, concrete and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers.” Biden allies on Capitol Hill are now threatening to condition military aid to Israel, though thankfully arms sales have continued unabated so far.

This represents a dramatic, harsh turn following an already shifting approach on Israel that unwittingly emboldens and rewards Hamas. The Biden administration once insisted on Israel’s solemn right to do what it must to eradicate Hamas. Now, it appears to adopt the view that such a right has serious limits and might need to be abandoned well before Hamas has been defeated.

This gives Hamas what it wants in an obvious sense: Hamas considers it a victory to survive when Israel has vowed to destroy it. Hamas counts on a long-running strategy of Westerners intervening to stop Israel’s successful offensives due to humanitarian concerns, which is why Hamas enables Palestinian suffering by using human shieldsstealing aid and employing hospitals as military facilities, according to US intelligence, NATO and former Pentagon officials, Palestinians on the ground and CNN and other media reports. Hamas then engages in a PR campaign to magnify the criticism of Israel by failing to distinguish between civilians and combatants in casualty reports.

Governments and NGOs then scrutinize Israel’s responsibility for civilian deaths, despite Hamas being far more to blame for whether civilians are killed since they launch deadly attacks from and store weapons among them. “Hamas wants civilians to be struck. This goes along with their strategy,” Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling told Jake Tapper on CNN on Thursday. “They purposely put civilians in harm’s way.” To its credit, the Biden administration had for months resisted Hamas’ version of events, even as Hamas was doing everything it could to put Palestinian civilians in danger. That ended on Thursday.

Now the Americans are indirectly telling Hamas that it can keep starting wars – as it’s promised to do – aiming to eliminate Israel and then retreating to its tunnels beneath civilian infrastructure because eventually the West will pressure Israel to stop defending itself because the cost to civilians is too high. The tragic World Central Kitchen strike, which Israel admitted was a “grave” mistake, was enough to make Israel’s key ally fold, even though such tragedies are bound to happen in war when the enemy hides behind civilians, as Americans know given its own mistaken attacks in Afghanistanand Iraq.

In fact, Hertling noted that the Israel Defense Forces use a similar targeting approach to that of the United States, and Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste Wallander in late March testified before Congress that the IDF upholds the same “high standard” in its operations as the United States.

As the Biden administration has ramped up the pressure on Israel to make more concessions in negotiations with Hamas, declaring that the US cannot accept anything other than a successful deal, is it a coincidence that Hamas has repeatedly rejected Israel’s offers? Nadav Eyal, a well-known Israeli diplomatic reporter, cited Israeli intelligence assessments this week in reporting that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar “thinks that he’s winning, and the reason for that is that he’s seeing the kind of pressure employed on Israel. His general gamble from the beginning of the war is that he’ll survive underground for more time than the IDF will survive overground.” Sinwar doesn’t expect to survive because his troops can destroy the IDF, Eyal continued, but because “someone is going to restrain the IDF.”

Biden now doing what Hamas counted on does not just send a message to all our allies that Americans may lose the firmness of their convictions before our allies can defend and protect themselves when they face threats. It encourages our adversaries to continue the cycle of violence that endangers all of our Middle East allies and our own national security.

I know from experience that this is not how to break the cycle. In 2020, with the signing of the Abraham Accordsa historic foreign policy achievement I was privileged to help create the architecture for, courageous Arab leaders in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco established peace with Israel. Granted, the situations are far from identical, with states like the United Arab Emirates having no connection to the territory that is in dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.

Nonetheless, the Abraham Accords are instructive because what made those peace deals possible was a regional attitude shift. The Arab states received a clear message from Israel and its allies: Israel was sovereign on its territory and was not going to give it up. It was better to work with Israel than to try to destroy it. At the same time, the Arab states were undergoing a historical transformation, embracing a future marked by shared economic opportunity, opposition to the threats coming from Tehran and hope for a peaceful and prosperous Middle East. These states, and their courageous leaders, were charting a course for a new version of the Middle East no one expected a decade ago.

Hamas and its Iranian sponsors are now getting the opposite message, that they should never adopt the attitude that led to peace because the West will never allow Israel to conduct its wars the way any other sovereign would: until its enemies are defeated and no longer pose a threat.

This would not be the first time Israel has been forced to end its campaign against Hamas prematurely. In a sense, the October 7 atrocities were just the latest battle in a conflict Israel has not been allowed to finish with a victory since Gazans elected Hamas in 2006. Israel faced pressure from international powers to end fights against Hamas at least three times since then, despite waging defensive wars against an enemy that vows to continue attacking. Israel must be allowed to demonstrate to those who wish to destroy it that they are fighting a losing battle, or this cycle will only continue, with more innocents lost on both sides.

Israelis are now preparing themselves for an Iranian escalation. They fear that the Biden administration’s response to the ayatollahs will echo its treatment of Hamas, an Iranian proxy. They worry that the Americans will fail to use their pulpit to convince Israel’s adversaries to stop making trouble. Worse, they fear that Iran could use its own civilians as shields should war with Israel turn hot, and the US would waver in its support for that war effort, too.

The Biden administration is moved by a virtuous emphasis on keeping civilians safe. But to keep America, Israel and all of America’s other friends and allies in the Middle East safe and secure, and to free the Palestinians in Gaza from the horrific leadership of Hamas, the Biden administration must signal to the world that it unequivocally defends Israel’s right to ensure that Hamas will no longer be a threat to Israel and that all the hostages must be released. Anything less will yield only more death, disaster and destruction in the near term and for the foreseeable future.

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