Hamas-run Gaza now constitutes fully half of Israel’s, and the world’s, Palestinian problem — the more terrorist, Islamist and uncompromising half. Hamas threatens to torpedo any peace agreement the Olmert government reaches with the other half, the West Bank-based, Fatah-run Palestinian Authority. Rocket attacks from Gaza against neighboring Israeli towns and kibbutzim have become routine, and Gaza could now be described as one of two Iranian outposts on the Mediterranean coast.
Considering the security challenge Hamas poses to Israel, it is troubling that Jerusalem does not have a coherent strategy for dealing with the Gaza-based Islamists. The absence of such a strategy could have heavy ramifications for future efforts to deal with Iran, its proxies and other practitioners of militant Islam in Israel’s neighborhood.
The Olmert government’s current thinking regarding Hamas fluctuates between two extreme strategies and ends up, by default, reluctantly acquiescing in the failed approach adopted by P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas. At one extreme is the perception that the ongoing Hamas military buildup, the movement’s extreme and uncompromising ideology and the seeming powerlessness of other Arab parties that are threatened by it, particularly Fatah and Egypt, ultimately places the military burden on Israel to destroy it, whatever the cost.
Ultimately, but not yet, if only because the Israeli public is not prepared to pay the price in casualties for such an operation, and because Israel does not have an exit strategy for leaving behind a safe Gaza once the operation is completed. Hence, Israeli thinking in this direction has produced compromise solutions, some far-fetched.
For example, Israel could occupy only a portion of the strip — the north, from where Qassams rockets are mostly fired, and the south, where arms smuggling takes place through and beneath the Gaza-Sinai border. Or perhaps in an act of supreme diplomatic skill, Jerusalem would somehow arrange in advance with the international community to send in a United Nations force to replace the Israeli military and usher in renewed rule by Abbas and his forlorn Fatah movement, which was booted out of Gaza by Hamas less than a year ago.
At the other extreme is the call to dialogue with Hamas. Israel, after all, has always sought to talk with its enemies. There is a large and growing lobby in the Israeli mainstream that advocates this approach, led by such former leading security figures as Ephraim Halevy and Ami Ayalon.
But Israel has never before negotiated substantive issues with a militant Islamist neighbor, and there is no certainty that, were Jerusalem to try it, it would even be feasible. Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, for example, refuses to talk directly with Israel.
Hamas also apparently prefers indirect contacts, like the current negotiations managed by Egypt over a prisoner exchange and a timeout in the fighting. And notably, Hamas refuses to discuss peace and contractual coexistence, instead using terms like hudna (cease-fire) and tahdiyeh (short-term pause) to sanitize its long-term goal of destroying Israel, while proffering cease-fire preconditions that are totally unacceptable.
Still, we’ll never know whether talks with Hamas could produce softer positions and beneficial compromises until we make a serious effort.
One additional huge drawback of these more extreme strategies is that they place Abbas in an untenable position: As a Palestinian leader engaged in peace negotiations, he can condone neither Israeli reoccupation of Gaza nor an Israeli-Hamas dialogue. As long as talks continue with the West Bank-based Palestinian leadership, the Olmert government is constrained from taking any action regarding Hamas in Gaza that could compromise Abbas.
Thus Israel concurs with Abbas’s strategy, which has the Bush administration’s blessings, as its default approach: Bring peace and prosperity to the West Bank and inflict hardship and deprivation on Gaza in order to demonstrate to Palestinians that Hamas rule is a disaster.
Unfortunately, it is now clear that this “West Bank good, Gaza bad” strategy has failed. Palestinians in Gaza don’t blame Hamas for their suffering, and the Hamas leadership and its belligerent approach are increasingly popular even in the West Bank, while Abbas’s Fatah movement is still viewed as being corrupt and inept. Nor is the lot of West Bank Palestinians appreciably better, as Israel’s security concerns continue to narrow the avenues for providing economic benefits.
Perhaps most significantly, at the heart of this default strategy are two major misconceptions. One is that economic carrots and sticks, whether Israeli or international, can significantly influence Palestinian political behavior. Israel has tried precisely this approach off and on for 40 years — from Moshe Dayan’s decision to integrate the two economies in 1967 to the current siege of Gaza — with no appreciable results. The second misconception is that if, against all the odds, Olmert and Abbas do reach a peace agreement, Hamas will cooperate by holding elections in Gaza that in effect usher it out of power.
The failure of the current strategy is becoming increasingly apparent to all, to the extent that a State Department Web site has reportedly initiated an internal debate about it, and more and more Palestinians and Israelis are calling for a reassessment. This is a good idea; there are additional strategies for dealing with Gaza that are worth exploring.
One is for Fatah and Hamas to return to a unity government like the short-lived one that preceded the Hamas coup in Gaza last June. This time, Israel and the United States would have to drop their preconditions and agree to negotiate peace with the Fatah half and a cease-fire with the Hamas half. This is a doubtful proposition; Fatah and Hamas are like oil and water. But it, too, hasn’t been tried.
Another alternative strategy is to talk to Syria. A peace deal, perhaps merely a peace process, with Damascus could weaken Iranian and Syrian support for Hamas, with telling consequences for the Fatah-Hamas balance of power and the possibilities of Israeli-Palestinian peace. For this to happen, Olmert, who seems interested, has to persuade President Bush and Israel’s moderate Arab neighbors to radically alter their attitude toward Bashar Assad’s regime.
Yet another departure would be for Israel to actively target the Hamas leadership, both political and military. Assassinating Hamas leaders is an unpleasant prospect. But it has worked in the past, it could save a lot of Israeli and Palestinian lives, and there are strong indications this could at least buy Israel a few months of peace and quiet in and around Gaza.
Finally, within about two years Israel hopes to deploy an anti-rocket missile that neutralizes the Qassams launched from Gaza, thereby defanging to a large extent the Hamas threat from Gaza. Within four years or so, similar defensive missiles could neutralize Hezbollah’s rocket threat from Lebanon as well.
This could radically reduce the likelihood of war, weaken the Islamists and improve peace prospects — unless, or until, Iran and its proxies come up with something new.