So much for the Arab Spring. Photographer: Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images
So much for the Arab Spring. Photographer: Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images

On the surface, this summer’s Gaza war seemed like a repetition of what happened in 2012. The rockets from Gaza into Israel, the bombing of Gaza by Israel, the mutual recriminations about who started it -- even the proportions of civilian and military casualties seem eerily similar. Small wonder that to many who care about Palestinians, Israelis or (yes, it’s possible) both, this summer’s events felt like an eternal return as imagined by Nietzsche: repetitive, circular and pointless.

In fact, though, this round of Gaza violence was different -- and its meaning for setting policy is correspondingly different as well. Hamas is in a very different strategic place than it was in 2012. That war came because it seemed the Arab Spring might herald a new era of popular, even democratic Islamism. The 2014 episode happened because the Arab Spring has failed -- and because outside of tiny Tunisia, the hope for Arab democracy is essentially dead.

Two years ago, Hamas was riding high on the emerging power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It hoped to replace Fatah as the democratically legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. It welcomed the fight with Israel as a way to enhance its negotiating position vis-à-vis Fatah, and indeed Israel. By standing up to Israel, Hamas was taking a page from Hezbollah’s book, hoping to establish itself as a genuine, organized political-military entity that could absorb Israel’s vastly superior firepower and bounce back.

In all this, Hamas was a harbinger of the democratic populism that accompanied the Arab spring. When civilian casualties in Gaza began to rise in 2012, Arab states sought to intervene by pressuring the U.S. to pressure Israel. Whatever the governments of those countries thought of Hamas, they had to worry about placating their own restive citizens.

The fall of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood last year, one of the most important historic effects of the post-Arab Spring moment, changed everything for Hamas, itself an affiliate of the Brotherhood’s internationale. The Egyptian Brothers had forced Hamas to stop receiving backing from Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The Persian Gulf principalities, with the notable exception of Qatar, had never cared for the Brotherhood and its anti-Saudi, anti-monarchic attitude. So once the Egyptian Brotherhood fell, Hamas was alone and without supporters or friends.

Weak and without immediate prospects for international support, Hamas entered into reconciliation talks with Fatah. Then, when the murder of three Israeli teenagers (apparently by Hamas affiliates) gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an excuse to hit Hamas and block the reconciliation, Hamas found it had nothing politically to lose by ramping up its rocket fire into Israel, despite the inevitable high cost of Israel’s retaliation. From the use of force as a sign of power, Hamas had shifted to the use of force as a mark of desperation.

As casualties mounted, no Arab government lifted a finger. Some seemed happy to see Gaza bleed. Ordinary Arabs still felt sympathy for suffering Palestinians, and may also have admired Hamas’s steadfast resistance to Israel. But with the Arab spring over and the threat of democratic resistance depleted, Arab leaders no longer had to care very much about what their citizens felt. The dictators were back.

The policy consequences of this changed situation are significant. In 2012, it seemed increasingly important for the U.S. to take notice of the costs, to its Arab and Muslim allies, of the continuing struggle between Israel and the Palestinians -- and to come to terms with the rise of Hamas. Democratic -- or even just responsive -- Arab governments might have to take account of popular sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Turkey is a good example: a longtime ally of Israel, it drew away from the Jewish state as it became increasingly democratic and identified with the Islamic democrats elected in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

Today, its back to business as usual -- a looming gap between the views of Arab governments and the sentiments of their publics. The traditional Israeli and U.S. preference for refusing to engage Hamas can now be pursued with implicit and sometimes explicit Arab support. As a matter of realpolitik, Arab public opinion matters less than ever.

This is a depressing reality -- but there may be a silver lining. Hamas survived the latest Israeli attacks, but in the long run it cannot survive abandonment by all its Arab allies. It desperately needs to reconcile with Fatah to get the money it needs to govern.

At the same time, Israelis, including those on the right, must now realize that a weakened Hamas is still dangerous. Hamas has proven that, with its back to the wall, it will fight rather than climb down. Next time its rockets may successfully close the Tel Aviv airport for the duration of the conflict; and its tunnels may enable successful mass attacks on civilians.

With both sides bruised, it may finally be time for Israel to let Hamas reconcile with Fatah and come to the peace table. In the long run, Israel cannot make a credible peace without the participation of an organization that represents at least half the Palestinian people, and maybe a good deal more.

If that were to happen, the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian deal would rise sharply. It has become conventional to focus on external actors, including the U.S. and the Arab states, and ask whether they would gain from peace. But in the end, peace will come when it serves Israeli and Palestinian interests -- when both sides know that running through the script yet another time will not change the outcome.

To contact the writer of this article: Noah Feldman at noah_feldman@harvard.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.