Barbarians at the gate, or just pragmatists?
Hamas needs to get Israeli cooperation

David Biale
Sunday, January 29, 2006

The analogies that come to mind following Hamas' crushing victory over Fatah are not reassuring. Is this like the recent victory of the Iranian hard-line mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has denied the Holocaust and urged the Jews to "go back to Europe?" Or, worse, is it like the Nazi electoral victories that led to Hitler's ascension to power? For those who think that Hamas may moderate its positions once in power (including its desire to push Israel into the sea), it is hard to forget that the same things were said about Germany's Brown Shirts.

Both of these analogies -- one recent, the other historical -- may not be accurate, however.

The barbarians may be at the gates, but they will have a lot of difficulty entering. It must be remembered that Hamas, like its predecessor, will not rule over a sovereign state. The Palestinian Authority is just that: not a government, but an authority (and sometimes far less than that). Israel still controls some 60 percent of Palestinian land, much of its water sources and all of its borders. Although Israel has withdrawn from Gaza, its military still regularly raids Palestinian-controlled areas in the West Bank.

Many of the most mundane aspects of daily life, such as filling up a tank with gasoline, are totally dependent on Israel. Should Israel wish to, it can cut off or curtail the flow of essential commodities, as well as money into the West Bank.

Moreover, the Palestinian Authority is heavily dependent on U.N., U.S. and European aid. As a result of decades of occupation, the misrule of Yasser Arafat's government and the recent Intifada, the Palestinian economy is in a state of collapse, with an astronomical unemployment rate (estimated between 40 percent and 50 percent) and at least an equal number living below the poverty line.

No Palestinian government, regardless of its ideology, can ignore these realities.

Since most Western governments have indicated that they would not deal with a Hamas government, the continuation of vital aid will force such a government to make significant compromises, unless, of course, it wishes to commit suicide. Now, Hamas has certainly demonstrated that it believes suicide to be an acceptable tactic, but will Hamas make this a national strategy once it has power?

Hamas won the election not because the Palestinians have suddenly embraced the core of its violent and rejectionist ideology. The polls of Palestinian public opinion have consistently shown significant majorities in favor of a two-state solution, which is anathema to Hamas. Although Palestinians have also endorsed suicide bombings, a stance that has itself been politically suicidal, they have not endorsed the ideology behind the tactic. Up until this election, keen observers of the Palestinian scene estimated that the core Hamas support was generally around 15 percent, rising to around 30 percent in times of crises with Israel.

The Palestinians voted overwhelmingly for Hamas for one simple reason: the bankruptcy of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, which has led the Palestinian national movement since the mid-1960s. Once given the opportunity to rule, Fatah proved utterly corrupt and incompetent. Instead of delivering peace with Israel, when given the chance under the Oslo accords, they built themselves villas and gave the terrorists a free hand. Mahmoud Abbas proved no better than his predecessor, lacking even Arafat's dubious charisma. Since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza last summer, Abbas' government has failed to assert itself there, leaving anarchy and chaos instead.

It may be that the Palestinians will reap the whirlwind: having decided to ride the tiger, they may end up inside. But it is also possible that Hamas, which has developed a deserved reputation for delivering services without the taint of corruption, will give the Palestinians good government. In order to do so, its leaders will need to find a modus vivendi with Israel, even if it is under the table.

There is a partial precedent for such a development. After the Israelis withdrew from southern Lebanon, many predicted that Hezbollah, having won a victory, would no longer be restrained by Israel. Yet, with some notable exceptions, that has not turned out to be the case. The Lebanese border has been largely quiet since spring of 2000. To be sure, Hezbollah never advocated the destruction of Israel as its ideological goal. But without giving up its militant identity, it turned instead to governing much of southern Lebanon.

The Hamas lion will not turn into a lamb, but, even if he continues to roar, he will still need to figure out how to eat. For that, he will need to cooperate with those holding the keys to his cage. And, if he ever wants to gain possession of the keys, he will have to face the reality that Israel is not going to disappear.

David Biale is Emanuel Ringelblum professor of Jewish History at UC Davis.

©2006 San Francisco Chronicle