We need a coherent strategy

The international ramifications of the Hamas drama in Palestine are growing. In many quarters of the West and the Middle East, the Israeli/American/Quartet/NATO/Egypt stand regarding Hamas is increasingly seen as another battle in the same clash of civilizations that pits Denmark against its embassy burners in Damascus and half the world against Iran’s nuclear program.

Despite, or perhaps because of these West/Muslim tensions, the international front that initially lined up with Israel in demanding that Hamas recognize it, cease terrorist activity and accept all previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements is beginning to crumble. Russia has invited Hamas to Moscow, with France’s support. Turkey and Qatar have offered to mediate between Israel and Hamas. Ostensibly, everyone still adheres to the three demands regarding Hamas’ position. But a variety of compromise formulae sponsored by Russia, Egypt, the EU or others cannot be far away.

Under these circumstances, what is Israel to do with respect to the efforts to form a new Palestinian government in the Hamas era? The Palestinians are in no hurry to form that government, while the current Israeli political reality of impending elections and an acting prime minister also make it difficult to develop a coherent strategy in the coming months. But a coherent and rational strategy is what we need, and the sooner we begin formulating it the better. The following elements, some of which have already been mentioned in this column in recent weeks, would appear to be relevant:

On the home front, without interfering in the Palestinian government-formation process or in possible Hamas-Fateh friction, we have to look for ways to encourage and strengthen more moderate elements within Hamas, if indeed they exist (thus far we have only their rhetoric to go by), in the hope that one day we can negotiate with them. A parallel option is to encourage the West Bank, where Fateh is relatively strong, to increasingly detach itself from the Hamas stronghold of Gaza. At the same time, and without prejudice to the many moderate Palestinians who continue to seek a peaceful compromise solution, we should not delude ourselves that serious negotiations are a near-term option.

Nor should we seek to negotiate some sort of side deal with PA President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), whether as head of the PA or the PLO. Let’s not fool ourselves: he was probably never able to deliver on a reasonable agreement, and following the Palestinian elections he certainly no longer represents the Palestinian polity we have to coexist with.

In parallel, we have to prepare for the option of far-reaching military action. If Hamas does not genuinely moderate its positions, it remains a radical Islamist movement committed to Israel’s destruction, and it is merely a matter of time before it finds an excuse to declare an end to the ceasefire (hudna) and renew aggression against us. Closer Hamas-Iran-Hizballah ties will certainly constitute a danger signal. Alternatively, Hamas will ostensibly maintain the ceasefire, but stand aside as Islamic Jihad and Fateh dissidents, backed by Iran, expand terrorist attacks. In this instance we will have to hold the Hamas government responsible just as we held the previous Fateh-dominated PA government to its security commitments.

Short of the need for a military response, and again assuming Hamas "remains Hamas" and continues to advocate our disappearance, we should proceed with additional unilateral disengagement initiatives on the West Bank with the objective of shortening our lines of defense and improving our demographic prospects. We should remove isolated settlements but, following the northern West Bank model of last August, not turn the territory militarily over to the PA. Nor should the wide open Rafah crossing arrangements be copied at the Allenby Bridge. In other words, in the near future Israel should look after its demographic and security interests without any pretence that it is encouraging and contributing to a stable two-state solution with an ultimately reliable partner, and without in any way harming the security interests of Egypt and especially Jordan, where Hamas is liable to seek to expand its influence.

On the international front, we’re going to be fighting a rearguard battle to prevent Russia, the EU and the UN from doing deals with Hamas that guarantee a measure of short-term tranquility at Israel’s expense. More and more international actors will talk to Hamas, whether we like it or not. We shall have to temper our protests with realism. Luckily, the US is far less tempted to compromise, but that doesn’t exempt us from confrontation with Washington: President Bush must be persuaded to reformulate his democratic reform program for the Arab Middle East so that it emphasizes developing civil society infrastructure rather than holding elections that enfranchise armed Islamist factions.

The sooner Israel has a coherent and rational strategy for dealing with all aspects of Hamas’ rise to power, the more capable we shall be in the near term of maintaining our own vital interests–a secure, Jewish and democratic state that seeks a compromise peace with Palestine–as well as contributing to those of our moderate friends and neighbors.