Israelis must seek peace, not conflict

Until Palestinians oust Hamas, cool heads must try to prevent the volatile situation from worsening

April 26, 2006

Most Palestinians and Israelis recognize that there is no military option to end their conflict.

As Palestinian society continues to deteriorate, the threats against Israel - as demonstrated by last week's suicide bombing targeting innocent Israeli citizens - only increase.

Israelis cannot make the Palestinians go away, and Palestinians cannot defeat Israel. Both sides can either make things worse, or they can continue to fight for a lasting peace.

Because Israel has the upper hand, it faces the hard choice either to contribute to the erosion of Palestinian society and reject the Hamas-led government or to accept the fact that violence will never go away until a real lasting peace can be achieved.

As a Palestinian, I oppose Hamas because it has violated two principles that Palestinians who support peace believe are sacred.

Not only has Hamas driven a decade-long campaign of suicide bombings and violence, but worse, it has used that violence to undermine the peace process initiated by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

As an extremist Islamist group, Hamas has been driven by faith. But as a result of its election, Hamas faces the higher responsibility of representing the greater needs of the Palestinian people.

I am not sure Hamas, a terrorist organization, can do that. But we have seen many terrorists transform into statesmen, and not just in the Middle East.

Arafat was a great revolutionary who forced the world to recognize Palestinian rights. He was not, however, a very good government bureaucrat, and his government was plagued by corruption. Yet Arafat was the first Arab leader to openly recognize Israel's right to exist and to accept the inevitability of a mini-state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

Had Israel really offered to return East Jerusalem in 2000, Arafat might have been able to enforce a compromise on the delicate issue of the Palestinian right of return.

But all that is behind us.

Confronting Israel is the dilemma of treating Hamas as a terrorist government or accepting its own logic, which has argued that only a hard-line rejectionist Israeli leader like Menachem Begin, a former terrorist, could negotiate a peace with the Arabs.

Maybe Hamas is the only Palestinian entity that can enforce a peace accord that will be accepted by Palestinians.

Although Hamas has refused to renounce violence or even condemn the violence of other splinter groups, the Islamic militant group has abided by a unilaterally imposed hudna, or suspension of violence, for more than a year. Even as religiously zealous as Hamas leaders are, they didn't hesitate to distance themselves from the recent tape in which al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden expressed solidarity with their election. The leaders said their views are "vastly different" from bin Laden's.

In contrast with Hamas' actions, what has Israel done? Israel continues to punish all Palestinians for the crimes of a few, a policy that is the equivalent of terrorism called "collective punishment."

So far, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has refused to use the collective-punishment policy against the leaders of Hamas for the suicide bombing of another splinter group, Islamic Jihad. Maybe there is a strategy for peace in this awkward turn of events.

I am not defending Hamas. It suffers the same failure that plagues all "rejectionist" Palestinian groups. They can prevent peace, but they have no strategy to ever win. And violence for the sake of vengeance is not a strategy.

There is only one real strategy to achieve peace, and that is to not give up on peace even as the violence continues. And we have seen that, even at the heights of the peace process, violence has always been present.

This is not about giving Hamas a chance. It is about giving the Palestinians a chance. It is outrageous that Hamas would not denounce the recent suicide bombings. Yet, its failure to act responsibly should not preclude strategies to drive Palestinians and Israelis back toward peace.

Responsible Palestinians have condemned the violence and even Hamas' rejection of peace. At the earliest opportunity, Palestinians should throw the hypocrites out of office.

Until then, though, Israel can prevent the situation from worsening. Israel should punish only those Palestinians who directly engage in violence.

Palestinians live under Israeli occupation, not the other way around. Israel has the means to push toward peace or toward more conflict.

We don't need more violence. We need more leaders like Rabin and Arafat who had the courage to shake each other's hand.

To achieve peace, Palestinians and Israelis must shoulder their own burdens to make it work. We have no other choice.

Ray Hanania is former national president of the Palestinian American Congress.

Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.