Barbarians at the gate,
or just pragmatists?
Hamas needs to get Israeli cooperation
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 Although Israel has withdrawn from Gaza, its military still regularly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
David Biale is
Emanuel Ringelblum professor of Jewish History at UC Davis.
©2006 San Francisco