The First Step
Any concerted effort by the Bush administration with the support of other regional powers in the Middle East to undermine Hamas and precipitate its early collapse will be counterproductive and extremely dangerous. A better option is to persuade Hamas, for its own good, to enforce a comprehensive ceasefire as a first step and thereby create a calmer atmosphere, from which Israelis and Palestinians can greatly benefit.
Having just returned from an extensive visit to Turkey, and based on my conversations with many Turkish officials while there, I have no doubt that no other nation is more suited and respected in the region than Turkey to play a significant role. As such, Turkey is in the best position to persuade Hamas to accept the proposition of a comprehensive ceasefire. Turkey has been, and continues to be, involved in Israeli-Palestinian affairs and enjoys excellent relations with both sides. Although by recently playing host to Hamas, it upset the Israelis and the Americans, Turkey, nevertheless, did the right thing. And it should continue its peace-making efforts unabated. Now is an opportunity for Turkey to project itself more forcefully and live up to its promise of being a long-term player in the region, where it stands out as a democracy with growing and solid relations with virtually every state in the area.
Israel’s Prime Minister designate Ehud Olmert will soon present his new government to Parliament–a government committed to a far-reaching withdrawal from the West Bank. Thus, there can be no better time for the Hamas government to declare its willingness to enforce a comprehensive ceasefire. This is the most critical first step that Hamas must now take to begin to break open the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Turkey is in a position to play a major role to bring about this development. Israel in turn can be persuaded to end its targeted killings and incursions into Palestinian territories, remove scores of road blocks and allow thousands of Palestinians to work in Israel. As long as Hamas demonstrates that it is making a 100-percent effort, even Israel will understand if the results fall a little short of total success. A calm atmosphere free of violence remains Israel’s basic requirement and anything less will end any opportunity for direct or even indirect dialogue. Olmert is on record for agreeing to allow Hamas time to mull over its position. Hamas’ leadership, in their governing capacity, will sooner than later realize that any temporary relief they receive from Iran or Syria will not provide long-term solutions to their people’s problems and needs. Given enough time to adjust to the political realities on the ground, they may conclude that time is not on their side, and if they do not act responsibly, their government will collapse under its own weight or because of increasing Israeli and international pressure or a combination of the two. In this regard, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can play a much more useful role by trying to moderate Hamas’ policies working hand in hand with the Turkish and Israeli governments.
The other option being circulated is to bring about Hamas’ premature political demise which, I believe, would be a grave mistake. The precipitous collapse of Hamas as a government will provoke a tremendous outcry from its solid constituency, at least 30 percent of the Palestinian community. In this context, we should not forget the tragic lesson of Algeria in 1992, when the electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was taken from it. In the aftermath, tens of thousands of Algerians were killed and they continue to this day to die. The potential violence that could erupt in the Palestinian territories–directed against other Palestinian factions and Israel–will make the Second Intifadah look like child’s play. It is also an illusion to think that simply channeling aid directly to the Palestinian people while simultaneously undermining Hamas will somehow avert further Palestinian suffering. However Palestinians receive such aid, Hamas will benefit from it in one way or the other. But, for Hamas to function as a normal, as opposed to a “pariah,” government cannot operate in isolation indefinitely. It will be wise to practice patience while prompting Hamas to begin to move forward with a comprehensive ceasefire, which as a government it ought to be able to enforce, particularly since Hamas itself has been adhering to a ceasefire for more than a year. Hamas’ efforts to impose a comprehensive ceasefire are likely be opposed by former and current Fatah security forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas as well as by the Aqsa Brigade and Islamic Jihad. But Hamas’ security forces are powerful enough to enforce the ceasefire should it muster the political will.
In the final analysis, only an end to violence by Palestinians will create an environment conducive to opening new channels for dialogue with Israel. And only under such conditions can Israel be asked to reciprocate by ending its incursions into Palestinian territories along with targeted killings, and to make other meaningful concessions on the ground. After six months, if the Hamas leadership does not come to its senses, then other measures must be contemplated. In the meantime, Turkey can, indeed must, spearhead the efforts to persuade Hamas to take the first step.