The approach of the Israeli government and security establishment toward a negotiated ceasefire in and around Gaza reflects the tension between two opposing assessments. The result is the absence of a coherent strategy.

One assessment broadly reads Hamas as essentially an intractable militant Islamist organization that can never come to terms with Israel and live alongside it peaceably. If it can’t be weakened and manipulated through the threat of force and by enhancing its rival for power, Fateh, it will have to be confronted militarily.

The other assessment holds that ultimately Hamas is a political movement that comprises both extremist and moderate schools of thought and that can be motivated through negotiation to adapt its world view to emerging realities and accept modified and limited achievements. This view compares Hamas of today to Fateh of 30 years ago; just as prolonged contact and negotiations with Israelis mitigated Fateh’s original absolute demand for Israel’s demise, so too Hamas can be brought around to a more constructive role. Hamas, in this assessment, is far more a creature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than an outpost of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine or, worse, a Sunni Muslim proxy of Shi’ite Islamic revolutionary Iran.

The first school of thought views a ceasefire as, at best, a tactical pause before major conflict. The second sees it as the possible beginning of constructive interaction.

The strategies regarding Hamas that emerge from both assessments are problematic. Can Hamas, a grassroots movement, be decisively "defeated" militarily? Can it even somehow be brought to its knees through economic and diplomatic boycott? Certainly this latter strategy has failed thus far.

On the other hand, when Israeli-PLO contacts began years ago, not just Fateh but Israel too modified its views–to the extent of accepting a two-state solution. In contrast, Israel has no apparent new concession to offer Hamas in exchange for modifying its absolute denial of Israel’s right to exist. Moreover, Fateh of Yasser Arafat was essentially a secular liberation movement in the third world tradition of the day, whereas Hamas is thoroughly Islamist in nature and shuns direct contact with Israelis; comparisons between the political evolution of the two movements are risky.

Both of these approaches have strong roots within the Israeli political and security establishments. Their relative influence is affected by a host of more immediate issues. These include the course of peace negotiations with the PLO alongside Israeli-Egyptian relations as seen against the backdrop of the gradual decline of the Mubarak regime. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert’s troubles at home and their effect on his freedom of maneuver vis-a-vis both the Palestinians and his political rivals are another factor, as is the high profile of the Gilad Shalit case among the Israeli public. Finally, the attitude toward Hamas of the international community, led by the US, is critical for Israel’s ultimate decision.

At the end of the day, the Olmert government has not resolved the contradiction between the approaches and does not appear to have a cohesive strategy regarding Gaza and Hamas. Hence the zigzag nature of Israel’s approach. At one and the same time it is negotiating indirectly through Egypt’s good offices while threatening (and occasionally carrying out, on a limited basis) a tougher military response. The government prays that its own civilian losses won’t escalate, yet offers Israelis living near Gaza only limited resources to improve their civil defenses. It fiddles with the quantities of essential goods allowed into the Strip while ignoring the prolonged failure of economic boycotts and incentives to alter Palestinian behavior. And it criticizes Egypt’s failure to stop the flow of smuggled ordnance under the Sinai-Gaza border, yet without overly straining Egyptian-Israeli relations.

How long can this go on? On the one hand, it is hard to imagine an all-out Israeli military effort aimed at wiping out Hamas in Gaza unless and until the Israeli public comes to terms with two seemingly inevitable outcomes: the prospect of hundreds of Israeli civilian and military losses, and reoccupation of all or a major part of the Strip without the benefit of a viable exit strategy, i.e., in the absence of any respectable Palestinian, Egyptian or international actor that is prepared to take re-conquered Gaza off our hands and prevent it from again exporting terrorism. Such a contingency does not appear realistic today. But it could become so in the not too distant future if the threat projected by Iran and its allies grows, if Egypt comes under hostile rule, if the PLO collapses in the West Bank or if Hamas escalates its attacks on Israelis.

On the other hand, any ceasefire negotiated with Hamas is bound to be temporary and to serve as a prelude to reliance on greater force unless ways can be found to modify Hamas’ behavior and bring it into productive contact with Israel. This too is, at least for now, a doubtful proposition.

Meanwhile, we’ll continue to zigzag.