All Writings
September 3, 2003

Sealing Their Own Fate

The suicide bombing that killed 21 Israelis in Jerusalem on August 19th may have sealed the fate of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. For the first time since the eruption of the second Intifadah nearly three years ago, the United States, Israel, and a key element of the Palestinian Authority led by Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, agree that Hamas' and Jihad's military structure must be dismantled if the Road Map is to be saved from an otherwise certain failure.

Although there have been more than 100 suicide bombings during the past 36 months–several as heinous–this attack crossed Israel's threshold for suffering and pain, perhaps changing irreversibly the nature of discourse in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It differed from previous attacks in three important ways: (1) the bombing was not a retaliation against a major Israeli provocation, (2) there was a cease-fire in place which a majority of Israelis and Palestinians wanted to preserve, and (3) children were targeted, resulting in 6 of them dead and 40 injured.

Although Israel, the faction of the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas, and the Bush administration agree that Hamas and Islamic Jihad must be disarmed and dismantled, each is struggling with certain political realities that prevent them from initiating some decisive action:

The Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas neither has the political power nor the security forces at his disposal to deal by himself with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Chairman Arafat continues to control the levers of power, especially exercising control over the security forces. He remains unwilling to unleash these forces against Hamas and Jihad not because he fears a civil war– he has taken severe actions against Hamas and Jihad in the past when it served his purpose–but because, regardless of his public utterances to the contrary, he simply does not support the Road Map or any negotiated settlement. For the same reason, he turned down the Clinton/Barak peace proposal in the summer of 2000. The prospect for a concerted and unified effort to deal with Hamas and Jihad by the Palestinian Authority appears less and less likely as long as the power struggle between Mahmoud Abbas and Arafat continues.

Although threatening to invade Gaza if it becomes necessary, Israel for its part remains hesitant to wage all-out war against Hamas and Jihad, estimating a substantial number of casualties– in the many hundreds on both sides. Despite this hesitation, Israel is bringing tremendous pressure to bear on the Palestinian Authority to act by increasing its targeted killing of Hamas and Jihad militants. In addition, by way of raising the ante, Israel has recently threatened to expel Arafat and so give other members of the Palestinian Authority, including Mahmoud Abbas, an opportunity to act on their own. The Israelis fully comprehend that the expulsion of Arafat might result in violence, followed by a period of great political uncertainty. In this period of heightened tension, the Israeli government is divided about the utility of its current strategy, of exactly what tact to take in lieu of all-out war on Hamas and Jihad.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration finds itself mired in the continuing violence and facing mounting criticism for its handling of post-war Iraq. The recent events in Iraq has wiped away at least some if not all of the administration's luster in advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And with America increasingly distracted by Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian situation has deteriorated to such a dangerous level, only Mr. Bush's direct involvement may be able to set things back on course. Yet, even though he obviously wants to avoid any further escalation of violence to prevent the Road Map's total collapse, he is reluctant as the American elections grow nearer to invest additional political capital in a venture with such a high risk of failure.

Where then do we go from here? Disarming and dismantling Hamas's and Jihad's infrastructure, or forcing them to accept a permanent political solution, is a cardinal precondition to any progress in the peace process. Israel has both the greatest stake in ending the violence and the military capacity to achieve it. In the end, the Israeli government may have no choice but to issue an ultimatum to Hamas and Jihad with a timeline, demanding that they either accept a permanent cease-fire and join the political process or face destruction. Such an ultimatum must be absolutely credible: Israel must demonstrate by a show of force, in this case, preparing for a full-scale invasion of Gaza, so that there would be no doubt about its intentions and the outcome should Hamas and Jihad defy its demands. Arafat's fate must also be sealed with that of the two organizations should Israel declare all-out war to destroy them. Giving Hamas and Jihad a choice would garner international support and greater sympathy for Israel. Notwithstanding their ideological zeal to destroy Israel, if forced to decide between assured destruction or survival on terms acceptable to Israel, both may well select survival (a choice they could then justify as a strategic retreat necessitated by circumstances). To succeed and improve the chances of their accepting Israel's terms, however, three other prerequisites are necessary:

First, Israel must undertake a massive public relations campaign to prepare Palestinian public opinion for what might come should Hamas and Jihad reject Israel's offer of a political solution. Appealing to the hearts and minds of the Palestinian masses is of extreme importance. The Palestinian people must be made aware that every political avenue has been exhausted and that neither they nor the Israelis can continue to endure the pain and suffering a minority of misguided militants has inflicted on them. I know first-hand that many moderate Palestinian wish that Israel would force the issue even if it meant the death of the leaders of these organizations. Second, the Sharon government must spell out some of the major steps it will be prepared to take to reassure Palestinians. These should include: the dismantlement of all new outposts, a freeze on the expansion of existing settlements, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian towns and cities, the removal of road blocks, the offer of real opportunities for jobs in Israel, and the release of most of the Palestinian prisoners. Knowing in advance the immediate rewards of peace will have an extremely positive effect on the Palestinian disposition. Regardless of whether Hamas and Jihad agree to the political option, Israel's declaring what it would do, will also bring mounting pressure on these two organizations as well as on Arafat from all corners of the Palestinian political spectrum. Third, at a minimum, Israel must secure America's acquiescence to its plans, which is likely to be given tacitly. President Bush has by now come full circle–accepting the fact that something drastic must be done about Hamas and Jihad. He now sees that continuation of the horrifying cycle of violence will be the kiss of death for the Road Map in which he has invested considerable political capital and would like to salvage as he begins his reelection campaign.

Nothing short of an unequivocal ultimatum will move Hamas, Jihad, and Arafat to accept the inevitable. The sooner Israel acts, the more lives will be saved on both sides.