TEL AVIV — In the army, they call this a “defining strategic event.” In laymen’s terms, it’s called an earthquake. The gains of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority’s parliamentary elections compel all players in the Middle East to rethink their behavior.
“It’s much worse than we estimated,” a senior Israeli security official said last week, as the election results became known. Even the most pessimistic Israeli forecasts on the eve of the elections, those of Military Intelligence, did not foresee the collapse of Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement. Defense officials see the results as returning the region to the days before the 1993 Oslo Accords. As of now, they say, Israel has no negotiating partner. The freeze in peace negotiations likely will continue, and the movement toward unilateral action by Israel probably will become stronger.
The likely consequence of a diplomatic freeze and unilateral action, intelligence sources say, is a deterioration in security. As pessimistic as the Israeli security establishment was on the eve of the elections, when it expected a narrow Fatah victory, it is far more pessimistic now. In the worst case, forecasters anticipate the entry into Israel’s arena not just of Hamas, but of outside Islamic forces linked to Iran.
Key officials in the army and Defense Ministry describe the Hamas victory in worst-case terms as the opening of a “second front” against Israel. Previously they had spoken of one “wing” of Islamic terrorism, pressing Israel on its northern border in the form of Hezbollah. Now, following the elections, they speak of a “second wing” of the threat emerging in Gaza and the West Bank.
In effect, this would be the fulfillment of an Iranian dream: a pincer action, surrounding Israel on all sides with extremist Islamic movements. Each wing of the pincer is based on an Islamic organization — Hezbollah to the north in Lebanon, Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza — that is well integrated into local society and possesses an independent military force capable of serving Iranian goals. Both are extremist Islamic organizations with links to international Islamic movements, and both have joined their respective parliaments after competing in free elections.
Of the two, Hezbollah is tightly controlled by Iran, which shares its Shiite religious orientation. Iran has little influence now within Hamas, a Sunni organization. But Tehran gives high priority to establishing a foothold in Hamas. Hamas’s intentions are unclear.
Some senior Israeli defense officials see the visit of Iran’s president to Syria in mid-January as a key moment in the evolution of this second front. The Iranian leader held meetings with all forces relevant to the creation of this pincer movement, from the secretary-general of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, to the leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and smaller Palestinian groups.
In official Iranian documents, Hezbollah is called “the Lebanese section of the Revolutionary Guards.” The phrase is not mere semantics. Every three or four months, an Iranian representative appears along the Israeli border, reviews Hezbollah installations and inspects stockpiles and rosters. The Israeli side knows about the Iranian visits days in advance, from the excited preparations of Hezbollah personnel.
Hezbollah fighters not only receive training and paychecks from Iran. They consult with Revolutionary Guards officers on operational plans and analyses and draw on them for help in intelligence gathering.
The Iranians’ new goal is to turn Hamas into another arm of the Revolutionary Guards.
Up to now, Iranian involvement in the West Bank and Gaza mainly consisted of supporting local terrorist groups, principally Islamic Jihad and breakaway cells of the Tanzim, a militia associated with Fatah. Now the Iranians are trying to recruit Hamas people to their side. They want to secure a place in the Palestinian mainstream, not sneak in through the back door.
Not all Israeli security agencies share the army’s apocalyptic forecast. In interagency discussions, analysts from the Shin Bet security service have been urging their Military Intelligence counterparts to avoid alarmism. In their view, the entry of Hamas into the political establishment could begin a process of positive change. They note that Hamas’s political wing is known for its integrity and pragmatism on the Palestinian domestic front. By entering the Palestinian power structure, it will face pressures that could balance and restrain it. Its people want to succeed, and therefore they must moderate their positions.
Such views are not limited to the Shin Bet. The hopeful sense that Hamas is in a slow process of transition from a military focus to a political one is widespread among researchers in various branches of the Israeli defense establishment. They see the heads of Hamas as committed, first of all, to maintaining their popular support base, the Palestinian street. And the Palestinian street wants moderation.
The prevailing view at the top is more unbending. At the Herzliya Conference on Israeli Security in mid-January, Israel’s military chief of staff, Dan Halutz, expressed the prevailing view in the defense establishment: that if Hamas becomes a key influence within the P.A., a new confrontation is inevitable. Behind his words is a worldview that does not envision Hamas changing its basic goals. The possibility of dialogue with Hamas is an illusion in this view; entertaining it merely encourages the Palestinians to demand concessions from Israel. Hamas — even in its election campaign literature — has spoken of the Oslo years as achieving nothing to advance Palestinian interests, while five years of war in the territories achieved a good deal more. The Palestinian voter may have concluded that five more years of conflict will push Israel out of the entire West Bank, and another five years will drive it from Jerusalem.
The next encounter would pit Israel not just against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but also against the P.A. itself, given the likely role of Hamas. The implication is a confrontation with Palestinian society and another round of full-scale intifada.
It will not happen tomorrow, next month or even in the next six months, ranking defense officials say. It will follow a slow progression. At first, all sides will wait for a Palestinian government to be formed and see where the balance of power lies. Then they will wait for the Israeli elections at the end of March and the formation of a new Israeli government.
The key will be the international response. The pace of deterioration will depend on the reception that other nations give to the Hamas presence within the P.A. and the behavior of Israel toward the new Palestinian government. For example, an immediate, uncompromising Israeli demand that P.A. chief Abbas fulfill his commitment to disarm Hamas — with a threat to freeze all diplomatic progress if he does not — would likely accelerate the descent into armed conflict.
Israeli views on renewing peace talks are ambivalent. A poll published in Yediot Aharonot this week, following the Palestinian elections, showed strong support for negotiations. More than two-thirds said they favored talks with the P.A. if Hamas is part of its governing coalition, while only 28% were opposed. Even if Hamas were to control the P.A. outright, Israelis said they would favor talks, though only by a plurality of 48% to 43%.
Regardless of public opinion, however, Israel’s top strategists lean against talks. Israel is committed to the approach it has long urged on Europe and America, rejecting dialogue with a terrorist organization. The next stage will be an Israeli attempt to convince the Europeans and Americans that under the new circumstances that have emerged, there is no chance to carry out the road map. Israel is headed toward unilateral steps that will define its borders as it sees fit.
There is concern within Israel’s foreign and defense ministries that if an official European or American dialogue is opened with Hamas — before it disarms and publicly renounces terrorism — it could have a domino effect. Every prior obligation would be forgotten, officials fear, and de facto international legitimacy gradually could be conferred on a P.A. that has at its core a Hamas organization that has neither disarmed nor abandoned its goals. From Israel’s point of view, this would be a serious diplomatic blow.
Foreign Ministry officials are working hard to sound out European and American leaders on their approach toward Hamas in the wake of the elections, so as to determine what steps Israel might take to prevent a domino effect.
Officially, the Europeans do not meet with the Hamas organizational leadership. They do, however, permit meetings between European Union representatives and Hamas operatives, such as mayors. In fact, Israeli officials have learned of meetings between low-level European diplomats and the Hamas leadership itself. Reports emerging from these meetings so far have been encouraging to the Israelis. The Europeans have sent Hamas a clear message that if it does not disarm and renounce terrorism, Europe will cut off economic aid to the P.A. Whether or not the Europeans stand firm in this commitment, only time will tell.
The Europeans are worried about Hamas’s new stature as a fundamentalist Sunni political force in the eastern Mediterranean basin. They speak of it as an unprecedented phenomenon that could have a serious spillover effect on European interests in the region, on the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt, on the Islamic movement in Israel and on Islamic extremist groups in Europe. In the final analysis, we all live in a small neighborhood.
Alex Fishman is the chief military correspondent of Yediot Aharonot. This article is adapted by permission from an article published in Yediot January 27. Translated by J.J. Goldberg.