To understand the recent eight-day war between Hamas and Israel, it helps to keep in mind what former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill once said about public life.
"All politics," O'Neill observed, "is local." Reared in blue-collar Cambridge, and schooled by Beacon Hill politics before he went to Washington, O'Neill realized that the grand rhetoric of political life is little more than fancy dressing for nuts-and-bolts realities.
The reality in Gaza is that since Israel unilaterally withdrew from the once-occupied territory in 2005, Hamas has been guided by two principles: in the long term, the destruction of Israel, and — in the interim — the elimination of the Palestinian Authority (PA) as a rival.
Hamas took a major step in supplanting the PA when it stunned most of the world by winning the 2006 elections. Shortly after its electoral victory, Hamas provoked a war with Israel — establishing a pattern of sacrificing civilians in order to bolster its standing among Islamists.
Although its degree of success was debatable, this Hamas strategy essentially worked.
This time around, the reality is a bit different. Neutering the PA as a step toward destroying Israel is still on the Hamas agenda. But this most recent generation of provocative missile attacks on Israel is the fruit of the Arab Spring.
Widespread hopes among democracy-loving Europeans and Americans that the grassroots revolt against authoritarian governments of various stripes would usher in a new era of tolerance, peace, and understanding have not gone according to script. From Libya to Egypt, and in Syria, the forces of fundamentalist Islam are on the rise. Even though its control of Gaza is almost absolute, Hamas fears challenges to its authority from more radical and jihad-minded Palestinians. It launched this most recent series of missile attacks to re-establish its primacy among fanatics.
The situation is also being exploited by the religious dictatorship of Iran — the self-proclaimed enemy not only of Israel, but also of Western Europe and the United States. Iran has been supplying Hamas with short-range rockets and longer-range missiles for the last 11 years. Between 2001 and 2008 alone, Hamas launched about 4,000 strikes against Israel.
The missiles — then as now — travel from Iran to Sudan and make their way through the Egyptian-controlled Sinai (which Israel ceded to Egypt as a condition of their peace treaty), and then into Gaza.
The US-friendly Mubarak regime either tolerated or failed to stop the traffic, as has the government of President Mohamed Morsi, which rules in the name of the Muslim Brotherhood, out of which Hamas itself grew.
Although a great deal of ambiguity clouds the future conduct of the Morsi government, there is no doubt that the current ceasefire could not have been achieved without Morsi complying with President Barack Obama's wishes to rein Hamas in.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu also played nice with the Obama government. But even before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton landed in the Middle East to broker peace, Israel had displayed far more restraint in defending itself against Hamas attacks than it has in the past.
What now? It is difficult to guess.