News of Hamas joining the P.L.O. and renouncing violence continues to stick in the headlines. Today, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal reiterated the group's alignment towards non-violence, noting that unarmed popular protests "have the power of a tsunami."
It is unlikely Hamas has permanently turned away from violence (see this book for an explanation why). Rather, it has calculated that in the present period, armed resistance is not likely to be either supported by Palestinians or effective. In this regard, Israel is right to be suspicious of a group whose charter from the late 1980's calls for armed resistance against Israel and has attacked Israeli civilians on countless occasions.
On the other hand, Hamas has signaled clearly a move towards non-violence because it is working. The Palestinian statehood bid at the U.N. has put significant international pressure on Israel. Protests in Palestinian towns like Bilin and Nabi Saleh continue to receive publicity in the international media. Israel is maintaining a status quo response to these changes, but given the high costs of doing so, cannot maintain these policies forever. Sooner or later it will have to make a policy shift.
A smart Israeli strategy right now would be to "trap" Hamas in its current policy of non-violence. This change in Hamas' policy is a reflection of a shift in its cost-benefit analysis. Whereas before Hamas calculated that the benefits of violence outweighed the costs, Hamas calculates today that the costs outweigh the benefits. Israel should make moves to cement the incentive structure which is currently keeping Hamas on the path of non-violence. That means raising the benefits to Hamas of non-violence while also raising the costs of a return to violence.
Concrete Israeli steps to cement this incentive structure include:
1) Easing the blockade on the Gaza Strip. Doing so could build support among moderate Palestinians for Hamas in Gaza. Hamas is concerned about losing popular support in the wake of the Arab Spring. This Israeli policy move would make Hamas less fearful about losing Palestinian support, which it often gets from being the party willing to "stand up" to Israel with violent attacks. By easing the blockade, Hamas would get the support, but be less likely to take drastic violent action. Israel could also send a clear signal that the shift was conditional on Hamas remaining non-violent, thus offering a stick as well as a carrot.
2) Maintaining contact with the P.L.O. and Palestinian Authority. Israeli disengagement from the Palestinian National Authority after Hamas won the 2006 elections undercut its ability to incentivize non-violent political action. Israel could learn from this mistake by engaging with the P.L.O. despite the fact that Hamas is now a part of it. Creating relationships also creates dependencies, and Hamas may think twice about a policy shift if it would mean losing the payoffs of its political investments.
3) Shift the burden of proof to Hamas. Israel loses credibility when Hamas says it is embracing non-violence and Israel doesn't respond in kind. Israel should react by calling Hamas' bluff. This means it should encourage steps which induce Hamas to send a costly signal that it is serious about non-violence. For example, it could offer increased humanitarian aid and ask Hamas to close arms smuggling tunnels between the Sinai and Gaza. That way, Hamas either complies and Israel wins, or Hamas doesn't comply - looking hypocritical - and Israel wins. Hamas is playing a careful rhetorical action game to trap Israel. Israel should play back, and play hard.