Thursday morning we awoke to a new reality: Hamas is the official leader of
the Palestinian Authority and thanks to the US and Israeli governments
the official representative of Arab Jerusalemites. If before Wednesday's
poll Hamas concentrated its efforts on conducting its terror war against
Israel and indoctrinating Palestinian society to support jihad, now the
terror group will continue with its previous activities as the official,
popularly elected government of the Palestinian Authority.
Hamas's rise to political leadership and the significance of its ascendancy
for Israel must be understood on two levels. First, Hamas must be viewed in
the local Palestinian context. Second, the jihadist group's political
victory must be viewed in the context of regional developments. On the local
intra-Palestinian level, Hamas's decision to participate the Palestinian
political process is the result of its adoption of PLO's traditional
strategy of combining politics with terrorism.
In 1996, Hamas opted not to participate in the Palestinian elections
preferring to suffice with an operational agreement with Yassir Arafat. That
decision enabled Hamas to preserve its "purity" as a terrorist organization
and social movement rather than "dirtying" itself with questions regarding
the management of Palestinian relations with Israel and the rest of the
From a local perspective, two events caused Hamas's strategic shift that
brought it to run in Wednesday's elections: Arafat's death at the end of
2004 and Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and northern Samaria last summer.
Arafat's death left Fatah without a charismatic, popular leader able to
rally Palestinian society behind him and his party. Israel's decision to
withdraw from Gaza and northern Samaria without first reaching a peace
accord with the Palestinians gave credence to Hamas's view that there is
nothing to be gained by recognizing Israel's right to exist, even on the
At the same time, local dynamics alone do not explain Hamas's decision to
change its strategy and run for office. Regional developments also played a
major role. These dynamics were what drove Hamas to believe that if it were
to run and win, it would also be able to rule in a manner that suits its
long term goal of destroying Israel.
The policies of the Egyptian government and domestic Egyptian political
developments constituted Hamas's first regional rationale for believing that
if it were to win the elections, it would also be able to rule. Egyptian
dictator Hosni Mubarak's decision to hold official contacts with the Hamas
commanders, under the guise of continuous negotiations towards a ceasefire
with Israel contacts which have been ongoing for the past five years
granted Hamas political legitimacy as an independent actor both in the Arab
world and in the EU, (which officially sponsors the negotiations). As well,
under the cover of the American policy which defines the conduct of open
elections in Arab states, regardless of the identities, ideologies and
practices of the competing parties, as the main component of its strategy of
democratizing the Arab world Hamas's sister movement, the Muslim
Brotherhood was allowed to participate in Egypt's parliamentary elections
last month. The Muslim Brotherhood's success in those elections, and the
international legitimacy conferred on those elections, constituted and
important component of Hamas's decision to run on Wednesday.
Aside from events in Egypt, Hamas's leaders are deeply influenced by events
in Syria and Iran. Today both countries are led by men who have rejected the
traditional policies of terror sponsors such as the late Hafez Assad, former
Iranian president Muhammad Khatami and Arafat. Unlike Iranian President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syria's President Bashar Assad, those men practiced
the art of dissimulation. They hid and denied their active support for
terrorism and their strategic aim of destroying Israel.
The fact that Ahmadinejad and Assad Jr. are managing to survive even as they
daily challenge the West and Israel, demonstrated to Hamas that a
Palestinian government under its leadership will be able to survive for the
long haul even if it retains its public rejection of Israel's right to exist
and enacts policies that openly advance its jihadist, terrorist agenda.
THE FIRST question that Israel must ask itself is how we arrived at our
current situation. Only after we understand the forces that enable radical
regimes to survive and indeed to prosper, will we be able to move to the
question of what we are to do now. The answer to the first question is that
the current situation characterized by the empowerment of radical
elements in regional states has come about and persists because the world
powers the US, Britain, France, Russia and China have been incompetent
in reaching a consensus that the current state of affairs cannot continue.
In the case of Iran and Syria, both Ahmadinejad and Assad are betting and
so far justifiably that the relevant international actors will not be able
to muster the collective or individual will to bring them down.
Iran's daily declarative and substantive provocations of the international
community in general and of Israel in particular have been met by
international bluster backed by policy paralysis. Today there is no
agreement nor the beginning of an agreement on the need to enact even
the mildest of sanctions against Iran despite its resumption of its uranium
enrichment activities. Indeed, on Tuesday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair
remarked, "There would be a terrible misunderstanding, indeed a terrible
miscalculation being made both by the Syrian and Iranian regimes if they
thought that we were interested in destabilizing those two countries." In
light of statements like Blair's, it is perfectly rational for Assad and
Ahmadinejad to believe that they have no reason to change their behavior.
In a panel discussion at the Herzliya Conference Sunday morning on the issue
of Iran's nuclear program, Britain's former undersecretary of defense Sir
Michael Quinlan asserted that short of a total invasion and occupation of
Iran there is no way to destroy Iran's nuclear weapons program. As a result
of this assumption, Quinlan explained that when world leaders refer to Iran's
program as "unacceptable" it doesn't follow that they intend to take any
steps to prevent the "unacceptable" from becoming reality. Indeed, Quinlan
offered the view that Iran's acquisition of nuclear capabilities is
inevitable and that at the end of the day, only Israeli concessions land
giveaways to the Palestinians and unilateral Israeli nuclear disarmament
can serve to change Iran's behavior.
The Israeli panelists at Herzliya had a suitable answer for Quinlan. Retired
generals Yitzhak Ben Yisrael and David Ivry explained that a military strike
against Iran's nuclear installations would not be geared towards destroying
Iran's nuclear program, but to setting the program back a few years. That
is, the Israelis argued that the goal should be to use force in order to
neutralize the immediate threat while buying time to enable internal Iranian
processes that could lead to the overthrow of the regime to unfold. They
further argued that in the meantime, no concessions should be made to
Last Thursday's suicide bombing in Tel Aviv occurred the same day that
Ahmadinejad met in Damascus with the heads of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the PFLP
and Ahmed Jibril's PFLP-GC. This fact was yet one more signal to the Israeli
government that the policy it is advocating towards Iran should be similarly
adopted in the Palestinian arena given the obvious links and the
complimentary nature of the two conflicts. But the signal went unheeded.
In her address before the Herzliya Conference on Monday, Foreign Minister
Tzippi Livni claimed that Israel's international legitimacy as a Jewish
state is dependent on the establishment of a Palestinian state. Livni
further argued that in the event that Israel has no Palestinian partner for
peace, it must remove itself from Judea and Samaria and so work to establish
that Palestinian state at all costs.
In his remarks the next evening, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made
similar remarks when he stated that while Israel will fight terrorism, in
the event that the possibility of reaching a peace agreement with the
Palestinians is blocked, Israel will determine its borders for itself. That
is, like Livni, Olmert pledged that Israel will remove itself from Judea and
What Olmert and Livni's messages served to communicate to Hamas was that its
decision to replace Fatah as the Palestinian political leadership was a wise
one. Under the leadership of Kadima, Israel acts towards the Palestinians as
the Europeans act towards the Syrians and Iranians. That is, Israel's
strategy towards the Palestinians today is to speak harshly while
surrendering. Hamas clearly understands the game that Israel is now playing.
Looking forward, if Kadima wins the March elections, and continues on its
current course, Israel will be severely weakened both internationally as
the legitimacy of the most extreme elements of Palestinian society is
widened, and militarily as Israel transfers control of more territory to
forces that actively collaborate with Arab states and Iran towards the
destruction of Israel.
All this naturally raises the question of whether Olmert and Livni's
strategy is the only possible strategy that Israel can adopt. The answer of
course is no.
In their remarks at the Herzliya conference both Likud leader Binyamin
Netanyahu and former IDF chief of staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon outlined the
general contours of an alternative strategy. Interestingly, their strategy
is similar to the one that Israel now claims to be advancing towards Iran.
Both Netanyahu and Ya'alon explained that given the current situation, where
terrorist forces and ideology reign supreme in Palestinian society, Israel
must make no concessions either diplomatic or territorial towards the
Palestinians. Israel's influence on its enemies, both explained, stems from
its ability to deter them from attacking. That deterrence was weakened by
Israel's retreat from Gaza and northern Samaria. Israel must now work to
regain its deterrent credibility.
Israel's deterrent powers can only be rehabilitated by a stubborn,
uncompromising campaign against Palestinian terror infrastructures and
chains of command. Such a continuous campaign, both men argued is the only
way to make the Palestinians realize that they have nothing to gain by
continuing their war against Israel. The Palestinians' internalization of
the understanding that pursuing their war against Israel will bring them no
advantage is the necessary precondition for any future peace.
All of this leads to a clear conclusion. The failure of Israel's leadership
is one of the most significant causes of Hamas's ascension to political
power. Just as the persistence of radical regimes in Damascus and Tehran is
the result of the inability of the international community to rise to the
challenge they manifest to international security, so too, the empowerment
of Hamas is the result of the adoption of a strategy by Israel that is based
on how we wish the world to be rather than on the way the world actually is.
By the same token, Israel's ability to fashion suitable responses to Hamas's
electoral victory is dependent on its citizens' willingness to choose
leaders capable of accepting the realities we face and acting accordingly.
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in Washington and in the media consider "must reading." Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.