What should Israel do

Both the Arab world and the western world are watching Israel’s response to the Hamas victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections. As if the safety and security of Israel’s own citizens were not reason enough to act wisely and carefully, we have to bear in mind that Israel’s actions and reactions could constitute an important model for the way others deal with Hamas and, indeed, with radical Islamist regimes in general.

At this early stage, and bearing in mind that there is simply no precedent in recent history for a democratic election installing an Islamist government in an Arab country, Israel’s response might best be looked at on two levels: the immediate, or tactical, and the long-term, or strategic.

In the near term, we don’t know what sort of government Hamas will form; how it will interact with President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen); and how it will establish control over the Palestinian security establishment without engendering violence with Fateh. Under these circumstances, the Olmert government had best "keep its powder dry", avoid interference in Palestinian affairs wherever possible, and wait for events to unfold. Hamas has huge dilemmas to resolve if it is going to run Palestinian affairs next door to Israel; any Israeli initiative is liable to be counter-productive.

Israel simply cannot grant freedom of movement to newly-elected Hamas parliamentarians who are terrorists or active supporters of terrorism. That would be a dangerous precedent. It should, on the other hand, find ways to "reward" Hamas for maintaining the ceasefire and, conceivably, changing its political terms of reference. In this regard, and assuming Hamas displays a pragmatic approach, Jerusalem could continue to turn over to the Palestinian Authority taxes and customs levied on its behalf. There are three good reasons for such an approach. First, quite simply, this is not our money, it is theirs. Second, starving Palestinians will not make our lives more secure. Accordingly, we should also continue to supply electricity and water, as long as they are paid for. And third, this tax money is not the same as western and other aid funds, which constitute philanthropy. In this regard, Israel must take pains to explain the difference to the European Union and ask it to continu! e to withhold funds until Hamas demonstrates a readiness to abandon violence and recognize Israel.

Israel can expect the Hamas leadership to adopt relatively sophisticated techniques in order to control Palestinian affairs while creating the impression that it has agreed to a more modest role. One such tactic could be the creation of an ostensibly a-political, technocrat government. Another could be the virtual "merging" of Hamas paramilitary units with the Palestinian security forces. In some cases this may be convenient for Israel, which needs an acceptable Palestinian partner for vital day-to-day transactions (e.g., sewage disposal) between close neighbors. In others, Israel will have to refuse to buy into the Hamas ruse. While these inevitable twists and turns of policy may be difficult to explain to outsiders anxious to help Palestinians, we must remind them that it is we and not they who have to live next door to an Islamist political entity.

This is where the strategic dimension finds expression. Israel is now in danger of being surrounded on several flanks by militant Islamist movements that have been democratically installed and have links to Iran: Hamas in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, Hizballah in southern Lebanon, and Shi’ite Islamists further afield in Iraq. We need to begin formulating a coherent response to this larger phenomenon:

  • Until now, official Israel has been remarkably tolerant of President George W. Bush’s democratic reform plan for the Arab Middle East, even though that plan has empowered these radicals. After all, the US is our ally, American lives are at risk in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it behooves us to support the US effort in the region. But the unintentional outcome of American policy is now in danger of hurting us seriously. It’s time to look for persuasive ways to say, "With respect, Mr. President, your approach is wrong. Democratization cannot take the form of elections that install militant anti-democratic Islamists. Desist." A similar message should be addressed to the EU’s Xavier Solana with regard to European democratization efforts, although these correctly also emphasize democratic institution-building.
  • Sadly but necessarily, we have to at least contemplate eventual military action to remove Islamist threats on more than one neighboring front. The Iran link is particularly troubling: any confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program could mean conflict with Tehran’s proxies on our borders. In this context, President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad’s recent visit to Damascus and meetings with Hizballah and Hamas leaders were particularly disquieting.
  • Many of our neighboring regimes, led by Egypt and Jordan, share some or all of our concerns. The situation calls for quiet but expanded coordination with them.
    Barring an unlikely revolution in Hamas’ approach toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and even assuming matters remain tranquil, we now confront the obvious absence of a peace partner. For well-known demographic security reasons, and in order to further shorten our lines of defense against terrorism and reduce the poisonous effects of occupation, Israel has to continue to withdraw unilaterally. But under different conditions: we must be cautious–avoiding, for example, withdrawal from the Jordan Valley lest a Palestinian Hamas regime endanger Jordan. We might remove isolated settlements from the West Bank mountain heartland but without removing the IDF, in effect adopting the northern West Bank disengagement model rather than the Gaza model. And we have to complete construction of the security fence as quickly as possible.

Finally, it behooves both Israel and moderate Palestinians to keep in mind that we are dealing with Muslim fundamentalists whose devotion to democratic principles is questionable, and whose commitment to remaking Palestinian society in the Islamist mold is ultimately total, even if for tactical reasons Hamas currently presents a moderate and reasonable facade. Will the first regime ever formed in an Arab country by the Muslim Brotherhood initiate another round of parliamentary elections four years from now? That will be a real test of Palestinian democracy.