All Writings
February 1, 2006

Seizing the Opportunity

Alon Ben-Meir has just returned from a second extensive trip in as many months to Israel, Egypt, and Palestine where he met with scores of government officials, political party leaders, academics and ordinary citizens. This article and the two others that follow reflect some of his findings.

Although Israeli politics is traditionally affected by what the Palestinians do, coming just before Israel’s national elections in March, Hamas’ rise to power will complicate the political debate to a much greater extent as each major party tries quickly to chart a new direction for the nation to follow. Many Israelis see Hamas’ victory as a major setback to the peace process; for others it augurs an ominous development on many fronts, while still others see in it a silver lining–an opportunity for Israel to strengthen its position and reshape its strategic environment.

The Likud party will certainly try to portray Hamas’ rise to power as a major threat to Israel’s national security, the direct result of Prime Minister Sharon’s failed policy of unilateral withdrawal. Likud’s leader Benjamin Natanyahu will insist that making any further unilateral territorial concessions will only play into the hands of Hamas, for it will view these as a sign of weakness. The Israeli public, however, is able to discern the difference between demagoguery and honest statement and see Natanyahu for the opportunist he is, someone unworthy of the nation’s trust. But the problem with Likud transcends personalities. Likud has long since lost its political compass, and the Israeli public, therefore, is not likely to trust the party to head a new government that will seek to maintain the status quo regardless of the changing political and demographic dynamics. Thus, as one of Israel’s leading political analyst Shlomo Avineri says, “There is a distinct possibility that the victory of Hamas may strengthen not the Likud extremists in Israel but surprisingly the more moderate centrist Kadima party.”

At this point, even the Labor party may actually enjoy much wider public support than Likud, despite the fact that Labor’s basic platform of a negotiated settlement is no longer viable in the context of Hamas’ official position of opposition to Israel’s right to exist. Still, the Israeli public, which did not trust Labor to deliver peace with security before Hamas’ victory, will be less likely to trust it now. The elimination of a peace partner will force Labor, to support Kadima’s disengagement plans when the new government is formed. In the upcoming elections, Labor will receive most of its support from its core constituency and emerge as the second largest party, although it will trail far behind Kadima. Many polls consistently point to this as the likely outcome.

The party that will gain the most from Hamas’ big win is, I believe, Kadima. Not only will Sharon’s “spirit” hover over the party, but Kadima’s central policy–unilateral disengagement–is as valid today as it was before the Palestinian elections. With or without the cooperation of the Palestinian Authority, Israel must continue its gradual withdrawal from the West Bank and create a de-facto two-state solution. This is the only way Israel can preserve the Jewish national identity of the state of Israel. Maintaining the status quo, what Likud advocates, or waiting for a negotiating partner, Labor’s position, will only undermine Israel’s ability to insure the sustainability of a Jewish majority. Regardless of Hamas’ stated position, therefore, the new Israeli government will have no choice but to accelerate rather than slow the disengagement process. If Sharon were to awaken from his coma, I believe that he would urge, “Move forward, disengage, and secure the border of Israel by whatever means is necessary, including the fence, because only Israel will determine its own destiny.”

That said, both the Israeli people and their government must differentiate between the Palestinian majority (nearly 70 percent), who want an end to the violence and to conclude some type of an agreement with Israel, and Hamas, which sees the destruction of Israel coming in stages and pursues policies consistent with that objective. Yet, despite his assertions to the contrary, resumption of violence by Hamas directly or indirectly will simply not serve its immediate agenda; so we can expect Hamas to keep the calm. Whereas the Israeli government must serve notice to Hamas that it will have zero tolerance for violence regardless of the source, Israeli security forces should also refrain from targeted killing and collective punishment which may provoke a violent reaction. It is axiomatic that unilateral disengagement works best in a calm atmosphere. Hamas will acquiesce, even cooperate indirectly, although this may diminish its aura of militant resistance and so deny it the opportunity to claim that Israel is withdrawing under the gun. The new Israeli government must in this critical period be particularly careful not to take any actions that will alienate the non-ideological Palestinian constituency that supported Hamas. This means while carefully orchestrating balancing acts yet denying Hamas a helping hand, Israel should not shut down any possibility of finding a modes-operandi with Hamas. Stranger things have happened after the reality of governing sets in and those in power must make life and death decisions. Hamas is no exception.

Hamas’ assumption of power has not in any way weakened the Israeli position. That Hamas is at the helm of the Palestinian government will make it and Israel see each other more clearly. Both sides, in other words, will now be able to more honestly claim that “we know our enemy.” It is this better understanding of each other, including the removal of ambiguities and miscues, which can dramatically change the dynamic of their relations. Of course, some, if not many, may argue vehemently that Hamas will never change. Given Hamas’ history and ideological-religious convictions, such assertions cannot be readily dismissed. But to contend that no change is possible under any circumstances is to ignore the fact that many revolutionary violent movements have shed much of their ideological ethos and accepted a new reality along the way, especially, as indicated, after they obtain legitimate power. The realization that they can lose everything they have gained, and even be existentially threatened if they continue along their revolutionary path, forces them to change.

For these reasons, the new Israeli government must not operate under the assumption that Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians is doomed as long as Hamas is in power. The leaders of Hamas are pragmatic and understand that they cannot govern in isolation and must in the end respond seriously to any Israeli initiative. Israel is a powerful nation and need not always operates from a position of “superiority” while seeking to weaken Hamas. In so doing it may well miss opportunities, however subtle, that can dramatically alter current scenarios.