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 world.
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 declarative level.
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 an 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 Tehran.
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 Samaria.
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.