Israel, after the election

March 26, 2006

There is still room for a surprise or two in the Israeli elections Tuesday, but, as Ariel Sharon remains in the grip of a coma, it is likely that the electorate will affirm his unilateral approach to resolving the Palestinian question.

Ehud Olmert, Sharon's political heir, and the new Kadima party will spend a few weeks cobbling together a ruling coalition, probably with Amir Peretz and the Labor party as the major junior partner. Then Israel's government will need to confront the reality of its next-door neighbor, the new Palestinian government under Hamas.

Free elections are the very essence of democracy precisely because they unsettle the powerful or at least reshuffle power, but few balloting results have been as stunning in their conclusiveness or as unwelcome in their result as Hamas' victory in January. Hamas sees the peace process as a fig leaf for continued Israeli colonization, as do many Palestinians.

But Israel has long given up on bilateral peacemaking as well - despite soothing rhetoric for George W. Bush's ears - as shown by last year's unilateral withdrawal from impoverished Gaza. Buffeted by Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, and frustrated by the Palestinians' refusal to defer to Israel's military might, Sharon and his heirs demarcated Israel's boundary with the occupied West Bank with a wall and embarked on a plan for Israel and the Palestinians to go their own ways.

The problem is that Israel and Palestine remain joined at the hip. Not only do at least 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza, but at least 700,000 Palestinian Arabs are citizens of Israel. The Palestinian territories are linked to Israel's power grid and water system, and the Palestinian economy is deeply integrated into and dependent upon Israel's. Thus, tons of fruit and vegetables have rotted in Gaza in recent weeks because Israel has refused to honor its transit obligations, negotiated in November by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The immediate U.S. and Israeli response to the Hamas victory has been to isolate the Islamist party financially and diplomatically, with some success. Hamas was unable to attract any non-Hamas members to ministerial posts, and the Palestinian Authority it now heads is effectively bankrupt. Israel has refused to transfer monthly tax proceeds of $55million - this is Palestinian, not Israeli, money - to the Palestinians on the argument that it won't subsidize terrorists.

Only cobbled-together assistance by the World Bank, Norway and the European Union have kept the Palestinian Authority afloat. With a monthly budget of more than $160 million, even the most stringent economies will leave a massive shortfall.

While some pro-Israel groups in the United States argue for cutting support to the United Nations Relief and Works Administration, which runs much of the schools and health clinics for the Palestinians, serious U.S. and Israeli officials know that the economic collapse of the Palestinian Authority would be a huge disaster, and a recipe for desperate men and women to resort to horrific violence.

Moreover, it would be a catastrophe for America in the Muslim world, and it might well necessitate Israel's resuming full occupation responsibilities in the West Bank, which would undermine the Sharon strategy of separating. These responsibilities would include providing financial support for the people, which Israel does not want to do.

Hamas and its prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, face a choice between ideological rigidity and pragmatism. It is premature to expect them to categorically reject terrorism or embrace the failed Oslo agreements, but there are signs that a diplomatic dance between Israel and Hamas is already under way.

For this to keep up, Hamas will have to continue the truce that has been in effect since 2005, just as Israel will have to refrain from incendiary provocation. Although it has passed unnoticed for the most part, Hamas representatives have sustained effective working-level dialogues with Israeli counterparts to keep the lights on and the sewers connected. Though Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, it certainly recognizes the reality of its weak position.

Once the heated campaign rhetoric fades, watch for the dance to continue. Washington will join that dance, without claiming to be a partner, because the reality is that there is no serious alternative. If Hamas fails, it must succumb to its own ideological trap, and not be seen as a victim of a cruel Israel-U.S. policy, which would only redeem it in the eyes of many Muslims.

Augustus Richard Norton is professor of international relations at Boston University.

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