No Exit

Published February 17, 2006, issue of February 17, 2006.
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It may be true that the emerging crisis in the Palestinian territories, as Hamas takes over the legislature, could have been avoided if all sides had acted with more foresight while there was still time. Israel could have been more generous toward the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, so as to strengthen him and his Fatah party as they headed into last month’s elections. With concrete gains under his belt, Abbas might have shown his voters some benefit in his policy of recognizing Israel and cooperating with it. Abbas, for his part, could have worked a lot harder to rein in the armed gangs that were undermining Israel’s confidence in Palestinian intentions and making Israeli concessions politically impossible.

And both sides could have acted more assertively to stop the candidacy of a party that does not recognize the very structure it was campaigning to take over. The Palestinian Authority, whose legislature Hamas now controls, was set up under the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The accords did not create a sovereign state in the Palestinian territories; rather, they created a framework under which Palestinians could begin to assume governing powers and move toward independence. Until that time, Israel remains technically sovereign. For Hamas to run in Palestinian elections without recognizing Israel or accepting the accords that created those elections was illegal under the plain language of the accords and violates any logic of international behavior.

Now, however, that’s water under the bridge. The Palestinians have voted. They can claim that their democratic will should be respected. But by giving a mandate to an organization that glorifies terrorism and vows to destroy Israel, they have isolated themselves. As for Israel, it can hardly be expected to cooperate with an entity sworn to liquidate the Jewish state at the first opportunity. At the same time, Israel remains responsible for the well-being of the 3 million Palestinians under its military control. It cannot cut them off and leave them to starve. There are no good answers.

Israel’s leadership, whatever stance it adopts publicly, understands the delicacy of its current position, as Ofer Shelah reports on Page 1. It will have to walk a fine line, acting firmly against terrorism and making plain the illegitimacy of Hamas rule, while at the same time pragmatically fulfilling its humanitarian obligations. If it is wise, it will find a way to isolate Hamas without punishing the Palestinian populace and driving it to close ranks around the militants. There’s no exit down that road.

It will be tempting for Israel’s friends around the world to speak out strongly in the months ahead and demand moral consistency. What’s needed now, however, is nuance. If they are wise, Israel’s friends will give it the space to make the hard decisions it must make, both the tough and the pragmatic.

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