Nimrod Novik
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
April 7, 2008 - 5:42pm

For several decades now, Israeli policy toward the Palestinians has been all too frequently governed by false assumptions. These include the presumption to "produce" an alternative Palestinian leadership that is more amenable to Israeli preferences and an equally condescending claim to "reeducate" Palestinians to alternative thinking.

All such attempts have failed. They began with the promotion of the village leagues as an alternative to the PLO in the 1970s and efforts to create an "authentic local leadership" for the same purpose in the '80s. They continued with the declared intention of "strengthening Abu Mazen" that mostly left him empty handed when we failed to follow up, or portrayed him as a collaborator when we did act but sought public credit for it. From the patronizing "we shall enshrine in their consciousness" of the early 2000s to the recent equally delusional attempt to "undo the Hamas electoral victory via Mohammad Dahlan", all ended in failure.

The common bottom line has been a resounding reiteration that we Israelis are very poor manipulators of intra-Palestinian politics.

With such a record it is no wonder that our success in cutting Hamas off from all international sources of political and financial support enhanced the movement's dependence on Iran. Similarly, our resolve to send the Hamas djinn back into the bottle by siege and by force served to strengthen the movement's hold on Gaza and seems to have increased its popularity in the West Bank. Concurrently, the Israeli-American strategy of choking Hamas in Gaza while demonstrating that moderation in the West Bank is rewarded remains at best an empty slogan.

Still, absent a change in attitude, the worst is yet to come. When the Fateh way did not work, Hamas was elected; but the next step will not be via the ballot box. If Hamas fails, the alternative may not be "back to moderation" but more likely further radicalization, from an Islamic-nationalist movement to a "jihadi-globalist" one. Splinter groups first, followed by more substantial popular sentiment, will slide in the direction of al-Qaeda-like aspirations and conduct. To avoid a split, Hamas may opt to capture that niche and become its own more extreme alternative. At that point there will indeed be no common ground between them and us.

Even though this process has already begun, and although our policy of castrating the more pragmatic forces in Hamas serves to accelerate it, the trend may yet be reversed.

For that to happen, we need to adopt a less presumptuous approach on more then one front. First, we need to concede our inability to select the Palestinian leadership and adjust our policy accordingly. A strong, peace-oriented leadership makes the pursuit of a permanent status agreement worthwhile, indeed a must. But in the absence of such leadership, lesser objectives should be sought.

Second, we need to recognize that while President Mahmoud Abbas is among the most sincere, consistent, persistent and courageous advocates of peace, insofar as he represents only half his people he is not a potent interlocutor. Representing a broad consensus--he could be. Yet for him to represent a broad consensus, Palestinian national reconciliation is called for. And for that to happen, Israel and the United States need to free Abbas of the threat to boycott him and his government once he reengages Hamas.

Representing a Hamas-Fateh national unity government, Abbas' negotiating platform may not be the same. The goal of a permanent status agreement will probably have to be replaced with yet another interim agreement. This third adjustment involves a decision to shift the focus away from the Annapolis process. While it is quite obvious that this process will not produce a permanent status agreement before the end of the George W. Bush presidency, it may yield a last minute declaration of principles, produced by next autumn by Abbas and PM Ehud Olmert or by winter as American bridging ideas. Forgoing these possible benchmarks is no minor decision, given their potential long-term relevance to future efforts and short term effect in serving as Olmert's platform for early elections and in changing Abbas' intention not to run for another term.

Obviously, the most difficult adjustment of all entails recognition that "undoing Hamas" is not an option and must give way to engaging it, however indirectly. Once a new Palestinian national unity government is formed, Israel can choose to engage it on day-to-day matters while confining political negotiations to those who qualify: Abbas and the PLO.

Israel's tough choice seems somewhat less ominous when the range of alternatives for dealing with Hamas is spelled out. A policy of contained but continuing violence is not sustainable. Even if the Israeli political system (and moral code) could live with it, it will not take long for things to get out of hand and for escalation to ensue. Indeed, even if all else were to remain equal--which is never the case--basing a national strategy on our ability to restrict the range of rockets from Gaza is unrealistic and irresponsible.

Fortunately, the option of a major military operation in Gaza "to undo Hamas once and for all" or at least "to send a decisive message regarding the price of misbehavior" is dreaded. This is not only because of the inevitable heavy casualties on both sides, but also in view of the absence of an exit strategy that improves the reality on the ground as well as the justified concern that initial international restraint or even support among all those hostile to Hamas will give way to pressure to end the bloodbath once television images change attitudes on Arab streets and elsewhere and before the elusive objective is attained.

The present Egyptian initiative to create a ceasefire can evolve into something far more important. While not all the cards are in our hand, we are powerful enough to play ours humbly.


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