David Dreilinger
Israel Policy Forum (Opinion)
October 23, 2007 - 11:24am

The contours of the ambitious new Bush administration strategy for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are beginning to take shape. But not everyone is optimistic about the chances for success.

According to supporters of the Bush approach, things are right on schedule. Bilateral consultations between Israelis and Palestinians – like the meeting in Jericho between Abbas and Olmert this past Monday – will start bearing fruit in the coming months, as both parties move past confidence-building steps and start to talk about the outlines of a Palestinian state.

Meanwhile, conditions on the ground in the West Bank will improve. Israel will hand over security control of some cities to Palestinian security forces (thereby reducing the Israeli presence in the West Bank), release more prisoners, and take steps – like reducing the number of roadblocks and facilitating the influx of international investment – that will allow the economy to flourish.

Thus, according to the script, Abbas and Fatah’s mandate will become increasingly stronger, while Hamas in Gaza will languish. Unable to deliver for Gazans the opportunities that Abbas has delivered in the West Bank, Hamas will lose its appeal and moderate forces will emerge to take its place. Abbas will be able to crack down on terrorists without risking a civil war.

Finally, the optimists predict, the parties will discuss final-status issues at the long-awaited peace conference in the US this fall. With a push from cooperative regional powers like Saudi Arabia, both sides will embark on the path to a final status agreement.

Akiva Eldar of Haaretz reported on the evolving sense of positive momentum this week when he revealed the existence of a plan, developed by President Shimon Peres and presented to Prime Minister Olmert, calling for negotiated land swaps to reach agreement on the borders of a Palestinian state. In exchange for Israeli annexation of major settlement blocs – about 5% of the West Bank – Palestinians would receive an equivalent amount of territory in Israel itself.

Still, this strategy has left skeptics with plenty of ammunition. The largest question hanging over all of the proceedings remains unanswered: What about Gaza?

Few analysts believe that the most effective way to weaken the appeal of Hamas in Gaza is through complete political and economic isolation, which seems to be the policy Israel and the international community are adopting. In fact, many argue, this will only reinforce the perception among Gazans that it is the international community that is responsible for their plight, not Hamas. It is worth noting that the year-long siege placed on the PA after Hamas won elections in 2006 has not substantially weakened Hamas, though it has impoverished many Palestinians, especially in Gaza.

Ignoring Hamas is risky simply because, despite its current isolation, it still is in a position to destroy any peace plan it opposes. As former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami wrote in the Beirut Daily Star, “It is a fantasy to believe that peace can be concluded without the radicals' participation. As long as Hamas…[is] left out of the US-led peace process, they are condemned to remaining in Iran's orbit.”

Hamas is not without cards to play. It is holding Gilad Shalit and poses the greatest threat of violence against Israel. Talks with Abbas alone won’t change that. Also, if an agreement was reached with the PLO and a national referendum were held, Hamas has the operational power to block a vote in Gaza, rendering the entire process moot. Furthermore, with its back against the wall, Hamas could revert to terrorism (perhaps taking a page from Hezbollah’s strategic playbook) against Israel.

That’s why some in Israel are advocating a large-scale military operation in Gaza similar to Israel’s campaign against Hezbollah last summer, despite the costs.

Others call for some sort of limited engagement. The International Crisis Group, in a recent report, recommended that Israel and the international community accept a Palestinian unity government composed of both Fatah and Hamas elements. Arguing that no significant political steps can take place without consensus on the Palestinian side, a unity government may be the only way that the terms of negotiations could stick.

So far, Abbas has shown no interest in such an arrangement, but if Israel signaled that it would work with this kind of government, it might be a realistic alternative, perhaps as a stopgap measure leading up to a new set of elections.

At the same time, things on the Israeli side do not inspire great optimism. The recent conflagration over the removal of illegal squatters in a Hebron market – where the army and police mobilized three thousand (!) officers and soldiers to evacuate two settler families, and a number of orthodox soldiers refused to obey orders – exposed once again the divisions within Israeli political life.

Moreover Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni has rejected the idea of discussing final status issues with the Palestinians, while many on the Israeli right oppose the idea of a two-state solution at all. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, now Minister of Defense, has indicated no interest in any peace moves at this time, leading critics (including the Ha’aretz editorial board) to question if there is any difference between Barak and his opposite number in Likud, Binyamin Netanyahu, on issues of war and peace. In short, overcoming the domestic political pressures will be as much a challenge for Olmert as dealing with his Palestinian counterparts.

With all these potential pitfalls, there is a need for a nuanced and flexible American approach based on the realities on the ground, however unpalatable they may be. There is little question that the Bush administration’s decision to build up Abbas is a good one, even if it is a few years overdue, but the question is, to what end? If the end goal is seeking a peace agreement with Israel before the end of Bush’s term, the current policy needs to be modified. Hamas, for instance, should be provided with an “out” which, in this case, may be a way “in.” Not direct engagement, not direct aid, but a realistic path for becoming part of a process that could lead to a long-term truce or even a peace agreement. Danny Rubinstein in Haaretz puts it succinctly and well: “If Hamas isn't in the game, there is no game.”

That’s why Tony Blair’s role as an on-the-ground presence – someone who can exploit windows of opportunity and quickly adapt to shifting circumstances – is so important, and if his mandate is not extended beyond economic rehabilitation in Gaza and the West Bank, President Bush should take the advice of the 36 Senate co-sponsors of the Feinstein/Lugar resolution calling on him to appoint an American special envoy to the region.

What is clear is that Israel and the US, though taking the right approach with Abbas, are unable to ignore what happens in Gaza. That is probably what prompted Ephraim Halevy, the former Mossad chief, to give a provocative interview in the Wall Street Journal this week. In it, he argued that the time has come to talk with Hamas.

Halevy makes his recommendation on purely practical grounds: “I don't say we should talk to Hamas out of sympathy to them… But I have not seen anybody who says the Abbas-Fayyad tandem is going to do the job.” And unless Israel can work out an armistice with Hamas, things will get more dangerous for Israel as more radical forces like al Qaeda could gain a foothold in Gaza and eventually the West Bank.

Halevy’s version of “realism” has not picked up too many adherents in Israel or the US. But his overall point – that policymakers cannot ignore Hamas – should not be dismissed.


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