Before the West Bank Turns to Hamas

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published June 20, 2007, issue of June 22, 2007.
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Within 24 hours of my arrival in Israel, I am treated to virtually every conceivable reaction to the Hamas conquest of Gaza.

One friend, who knows well my longstanding belief that only a two-state solution can finally put this conflict to rest, says smugly, “So, who do you want us to negotiate with now?”

Another says this is a golden opportunity for Israel and for all those devoted to peace, because now that the always-awkward coalition between Fatah and Hamas has collapsed, Israel can unambiguously support Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. Others merely shake their heads at the tragedy of such violence, while more than a few are confirmed in their contempt for Palestinians.

The truth is that no one knows quite how to react. The editorials are all over the map. The events in Gaza are too fresh for anything approaching a consensus.

Abbas? Nothing in his record suggests that he is capable of the leadership now both available to him and required of him. But perhaps he will rise to the occasion.

Olmert? The very same: Nothing in his record suggests that he is capable of the leadership now both available to him and required of him. And it is well to remember that even before the Hamas electoral victory, Olmert had hardly offered Abbas the kind of support that is now so plainly warranted.

But perhaps, even in the face of his unpopularity — a recent poll showed Olmert with a 2% approval rating — he, too, will rise to the occasion. (A 2% approval rating is noteworthy not only for its tinyness but also because it marks what is likely the broadest consensus on any issue in Israel’s history.)

Being in Israel at such a time is an invitation to go beyond the large story (or stories) of the day, to seek out the kind of encounter that does not lend itself to headline or even analysis but that can be instructive, even on occasion illuminating. One such: A 50 year-old Palestinian father of six, Salim Shawamreh, whose home has been demolished by Israel’s Border Police three times but who remains an ardent advocate of non-violent resistance, speaks movingly of the necessity of a two-state solution to the conflict.

His plot of land is on the outskirts of Anata, a town of some 12,000 residents that is divided between Jerusalem and the West Bank. About a third of its population holds Jerusalem identity cards, while the other two-thirds are classified as West Bank residents, with no access to Jerusalem — including the “Jerusalem” parts of Anata. It appears that Kafka made it to Israel after all.

But as much as such meetings and such stories beckon, the “What now?” issue on everyone’s mind is easily evident — even if, as ever, the cafes and malls are crowded and lively throngs gather for this exhibition, that concert.

Will Israel move against the Gazan “Hamastan” before the Islamists’ power is consolidated? Will an empowered Hamas become a willing host to Al Qaeda, a new staging ground for Iran’s proxies?

And: What should be Israel’s policy vis a vis the West Bank and the P.A.? Or, more pointedly: How can Israel decisively prevent the gradual emergence of a Hamas-style authority on the West Bank?

For let there be no doubt: The Palestinians of the West Bank are not immune to the infectious bacillus of suicidal extremism. Unless Israel relates to Abbas as a partner, it will have no partner. That may well suit those in Israel, including those in Israel’s government, who believe that the status quo can be extended indefinitely, but it defies all the lessons that other such conflicts in other places teach.

They teach their lessons, however, only to those willing to learn them. It will not be easy, so late in the deteriorating day, to pay attention.

Abbas and his colleagues, as all West Bank Palestinians, must be able to see, up close, the benefits of their moderation. No, they are not Zionists and never will be.

But the leadership has steadfastly rejected the apocalyptic rhetoric that has for so long poisoned Palestinian nationalism, and in poll after poll a majority of the people has endorsed a two-state solution.

What does it mean “to see the benefits of moderation”? Amir Peretz, the outgoing and largely discredited defense minister, has announced time and again that the days of the illegal outposts are numbered, never mind (for now) Israel’s larger and “lawful” settlements. Yet the outposts stand.

Roadblocks, so many of them simply gratuitous, meant more to irritate and frustrate rather than to protect and defend, have not been dismantled. Simultaneously, negotiation of a final status agreement, including a rejection of the “Palestine as bantustan” approach favored by Ariel Sharon, must be fast-tracked.

Whether an Olmert government, with Ehud Barak as its most powerful member and with the final report of the Winograd Commission looming, will be disposed to move as the new situation requires, depends in no small measure on President Bush. At long last, now in the waning days of his tenure, will Bush help the parties understand what’s at stake, and press them accordingly? That will not be an easy call for this administration, with so many of Israel’s ultimately mischievous “friends” pressing for a fortress Israel.

History is here in the making. This sudden window of opportunity, in the wake of so many missed opportunities over the years, will not stay open long. Around the corner, Iran. Around the corner, more demolished homes, more demolished lives. Here, now, peace at last?

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