All Writings
September 19, 2005

The Post-Gaza Withdrawal – A Test of Will

The Gaza withdrawal has changed the political landscape in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The political fortunes of Prime Minister Sharon, the course of economic and political development in Gaza, the prospects of Hamas’ participation in the Palestinian elections, as well as their outcome, and, especially, the continuation of the cease-fire, all will test the will of the players involved to build on this new development or to squander another momentous opportunity. Sharon has staked his entire political fortunes on the withdrawal. His rival in the Likud party, Benjamin Natanyahu, is determined to unseat him. Sharon’s speech last week at the UN was seen by the extreme wing of his party as a declaration of divorce. Should Natanyahu succeed in wresting party leadership from Sharon, an early election will be called and a number of possible scenarios will then unfold: Likud may split into two, one faction led by Sharon and the other, by Natanyahu; Shimon Peres’s Labor party may try a new political stunt to strengthen its shattered political base, perhaps to no avail, or other small right-of-center parties may coalesce and go on to create a strong block with a Likud splinter party to stop Sharon. But even if any of these political configurations occur, Sharon will remain the most popular leader and could win reelection through a new political realignment–by forming a centrist party composed mainly of Labor, Shinui, and other centrist Israelis that are in the majority. Committed to the Road Map, Sharon is the only Israeli leader who can make further territorial concessions in the West Bank while actually increasing his public support. Only the resumption of violence can undermine Sharon’s position now or his prospects for reelection. For this violence not to happen, the Palestinians, Hamas particularly, must remember that traditionally and, especially since the 1993 Oslo Accord, Israelis have elected their leaders based on Palestinian behavior, basically the level of violence. In the post-Gaza withdrawal world, violence will give Sharon’s political nemeses, Natanyahu, in particular, the ammunition they need to make a convincing enough case against him to push Israelis to the right. And not only will violence be to Sharon’s political detriment, but to that of the Palestinians. As I’ve said repeatedly, as Prime Minister, Natanyahu will be a disaster for both sides. Only the Palestinians can prevent this.

For the Israelis, it is important for them to understand the Palestinian political and social dynamic. There is no doubt that Hamas is a terrorist organization and as such has damaged the Palestinian people and the peace process more than any other factor in the long and painful Israeli-Palestinian struggle. It is also true that in any democracy one authority should represent the majority of the people: there cannot be separate armed militia, regardless of need and circumstance. That said, Hamas today is not simply a bunch of hoodlums, assassins, and pillagers–its members represent a strong constituency, more than one-third of the Palestinians in the territories. They have their own schools, health clinics, and many other institutions offering social services that the Palestinian Authority under Arafat failed to provide. They have largely adhered to a cease-fire, are full participants in municipal elections, and have for the first time opted to participate in the national legislative elections in January. And yes, they may end up constituting one-third or more of the legislative body, but then, how else but by their participation in the political process can Sharon really moderate Hamas’ behavior? In fact, by this participation, Hamas implicitly accepts a two-state framework. That its members must first disarm and renounce their intention of destroying Israel as a precondition to their participation in the elections are not for Israel to demand. Not only is this interference in the Palestinian political process, it is impractical and certainly counterproductive in the current political atmosphere in the Palestinian territories. Palestinian Authority President Abbas is correct in trying to co-opt Hamas into the political process, not simply because he cannot disarm its members short of a possible civil war, but because he must first exhaust all political options to gain the political and moral high ground if it then becomes necessary to do battle. For these reasons, what Sharon must now demand is that Hamas continues to honor the cease-fire, enforcing his demand by showing that without this cooperation there will be no further withdrawals or progress on easing Palestinian mobility, realities that should be evident, considering Sharon’s internal political struggles with his own party. Let’s also remember that notwithstanding Sharon’s disdain for Hamas, his objections to its participation in the Palestinian elections are also for home consumption. If there is no violence, Sharon will be under tremendous international pressure to facilitate the Palestinians in electing as they see fit. Should Hamas become part of the Palestinian governing authority, Sharon could then demand that it disarm and accept a two-state solution as a precondition for political engagement and future negotiation.

Members of the Palestinian Authority will be wise to temper their criticism of Sharon or to try to outshine Hamas in anti-Sharon rhetoric. The Authority’s focus must be on building up Gaza and providing ordinary Palestinians there with jobs and social services, creating a civil society while enhancing internal security, control the border crossing with Egypt and making genuine efforts to eradicate corruption. These are what will enhance their standing in the polls and possibly enable them to secure a solid majority in the Palestinian Council. Above all, they must demonstrate zero tolerance for violence. Otherwise, they will force current or future Israeli governments to continue unilateral political and territorial disengagement, with ever-diminishing prospects for a viable Palestinian state any time soon.