Gaza’s dramatic, bloody descent into chaos last week pushed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back to the center of the world’s consciousness with a sudden force that was matched only by its profound unfamiliarity. For the first time in recent memory, Palestinians were suffering hellish violence and privation in which Israeli hands had no part. Most of the world, baffled by the novelty, watched the mayhem for days in stunned silence.
There were marginal voices here and there, on the fringes of the left and right, that blamed Israel for having left Gaza to its own devices, as though nothing else but chaos could be expected from Arabs left on their own. Most everyone else — American and European, Christian, Muslim and Jewish — understood that they were watching an earthquake, a tectonic shift that must inevitably change the rules of the game.
The change, it was generally assumed, would be for the worse. Some said Israel had failed to come to terms with Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, and so left the field to Hamas. Others said Israel had foolishly handed the keys to terrorists, and now the masks were off. Either way, everyone agreed, Israel now had a virtual Iran perched on its doorstep.
And then, over the weekend, the mood changed. Abbas, showing an unaccustomed steel, dissolved his Fatah-Hamas unity government, outlawed Hamas militias, raised his flag defiantly in the West Bank and called for, of all things, an urgent renewal of peace talks with Israel.
Looking around, Israel found that its alarm over the Hamas putsch was shared not just by the United States but also by the European Union, the United Nations, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and, most important, an astonishing number of Palestinians. Israel’s fear was the world’s fear, its cause the world’s cause. Hamas, rather than solidifying its standing in Palestine and the larger Arab world, found itself isolated, trapped in a cage of its own making. Israel’s newest threat turned out, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared with apparent surprise this week, to be an opportunity. Now that Abbas has reconfigured his government, shorn of Hamas and committed to negotiations with Israel, the prospects of moving toward peace might — just might — have improved rather than declined as a result of the latest disaster.
This unexpected turn of events shouldn’t have been so unexpected. Hamas has been whining for two years about the world’s failure to recognize the legitimacy of the mandate it won in the Palestinian legislative elections of January 2006. (At the other extreme, Israeli hawks have pointed to those elections as proof that the Palestinian street is irredeemably hostile toward Israel’s existence.) But the mandate was never a ringing mandate, nor was the vote a rejection of peace.
Hamas won control of the legislature with just 45% of the vote. The other 55% went to Fatah and other secularist groups that accept coexistence with Israel. The trouble was that the secularist groups ran against each other, leaving Hamas with a plurality in most districts. Moreover, that 45% plurality consisted, by nearly all accounts, largely of protest votes against Fatah corruption. It was an endorsement of Hamas’s clean image, not its fundamentalist ideology. No more than a fifth of Palestinians voted for the Hamas platform.
Now that Hamas has shown its true colors in a wave of barbaric terror against its own people, Israel and Abbas have an opportunity to show Palestinians another path. Hamas can continue its reign of isolation, impoverishment and violent fanaticism in Gaza, and Fatah can show the benefits of coexistence, civil society and international legitimacy in the West Bank. Palestinians — and the rest of the Muslim world — can observe the two options competing side by side. It can be, as some Israeli observers have suggested this week, a laboratory experiment in Middle East politics.
For the experiment to work, Abbas and Fatah must finally perform as promised. They must impose the rule of law, deliver services to their people and, most important, exercise that most basic principle of governance, maintaining a monopoly on the tools of violence. Terrorism must stop. Armed gangs must come off the streets.
But if Fatah is to have a hope of winning back the necessary trust and legitimacy among its own people to impose its rule, it must be able to show that its path, coexistence, has benefits. Olmert has indicated that Israel will begin to release the tax monies that it collects from Palestinians but refuses to hand over to Hamas. He has also offered to begin political discussions with Abbas about the future shape of a Palestinian state. That’s a start, but not nearly enough. Small gestures to the regime won’t win over the street.
Abbas has been asking Israel for years for good-will actions that will speak to the people of the West Bank. That requires real risks. Checkpoints must be lifted and freedom of movement restored, both to allow economic recovery and to remove the humiliation that most embitters Palestinian daily life. Illegal settlement outposts must be removed, to prove to a cynical Palestinian public that Israel means what it says about territorial compromise.
Most painful, but equally critical, Israel must release Palestinian prisoners, to show that its intentions are to end the war and wipe the slate clean. This is an issue of utmost symbolic importance to Palestinians, most of whom have a husband, father, son, brother, cousin or neighbor in an Israeli prison. Up to now, Israel has released prisoners only in response to terrorists’ demands, never as result of negotiations. Abbas must be able to show his people that negotiation works. And as Israel’s environment minister, Gideon Ezra, a former Shin Bet deputy chief, said this week, Abbas needs Marwan Barghouti, the charismatic young Fatah leader now serving five life sentences for terrorism, at his side to lend the regime credibility. Israel has released killers in the past, including the notorious settler underground of the 1980s, pardoned to please the settlers. Now Israel needs, urgently, to please the Palestinians.
The Middle East reached a critical crossroad last week. Down one path lies a possibility of reconciliation and coexistence. Down the other path lies a certainty of growing radicalism, violence and chaos as Hamas, and eventually Al Qaeda, spreads its tentacles to the West Bank.
Victory for Abbas means defeat for Hamas. That is the only possible choice now.