The Bush administration is caught in a trap of its own making. Having championed democratic elections in the Middle East, Washington now confronts a politically unpalatable outcome—a Palestinian Authority led by Hamas, the radical Islamic group.
The choices for the US are stark, but clear. President Bush can either accept Israel’s logic of unilaterally imposing a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or he can show some leadership and insist that Israel finally end the occupation.
Israel’s years of bypassing negotiations in favor of unilateral actions have obviously not ended the conflict. In fact, the Hamas victory is the ripened fruit of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s style of diplomacy. Sharon undermined the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas by conducting military raids and assassinations in densely populated areas, expanding illegal Israeli settlements, unilaterally disengaging from Gaza and constructing a security barrier on occupied territory that 14 out of 15 World Court judges declared to be illegal.
Ehud Olmert, Israel’s acting prime minister, is poised to proceed with the Sharon agenda in the West Bank by incorporating settlement blocs on Palestinian land into Israel and hardening the security barrier in order to establish an expanded Israel that leaves the Palestinians with a fragmented 40 percent of the West Bank—not a viable state.
Such a unilateral solution never had any chance of resolving the conflict in a sustainable way. It completely ignores Palestinian rights, including the duty of Israel to withdraw from all territory occupied since the 1967 war, as well as those issues on which international law supports Palestinian claims—refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, water rights and the barrier. If Israel goes ahead with its self-serving agenda it will further deepen Palestinian and Islamic resentments and convince even moderates that only extremist tactics have the slightest hope of advancing the cause of Palestinian self-determination.
Hamas has until late March to pull together a cabinet and it is still unclear what positions the new government will take, but what the outside world does will have an important impact on its course. Inside Hamas’s ranks contradictory statements reflect the tension between pragmatic and maximalist tendencies. The pragmatists want to govern effectively and gain the widest possible support among Palestinians. They emphasize their goal of an end to Israeli occupation and are offering Israel a truce of indefinite duration if it withdraws behind the 1967 borders. The maximalists are ideologically driven, insistent that Israel as a Jewish state must be eliminated, that the four to five million dispersed Palestinians must be given the right to return to pre-1967 Israel and that Palestinian armed resistance is their national right.
To encourage the pragmatic approach, Washington, Tel Aviv and Brussels should provisionally respect the election results, establish normal diplomatic relations and maintain desperately needed external aid flows, an important source of Western credibility and leverage.
As of now, they are all pushing in the opposite direction, making the ascendancy of the Hamas maximalists a virtual certainty. Israel has begun imposing sanctions and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice toured the Middle East last week in a bid to persuade Arab governments to do the same. The US and Europe insist that there will be no contact with Hamas and no economic assistance unless its leaders explicitly renounce terrorism, recognize Israel, accept all prior agreements between the Palestinians and Israel, and annul that part of the Hamas charter that calls for Israel’s destruction.
The chance of Hamas meeting these political conditions all at once is essentially nil since they amount to a renunciation of struggle and almost a declaration of surrender. As Khaled Meshaal, head of Hamas’s political bureau, said in reference to the US and EU demands, “Hamas is immune to bribery, intimidation and blackmail.”
It is only through diplomacy based on respective rights that a durable peace can be achieved. Hamas must be persuaded to abandon terrorist tactics and rely on political moves to achieve Palestinian self-determination. For this to work, Hamas must be assured there will be real gains towards statehood. However, first Washington will need to learn two lessons—promoting democracy involves accepting the outcome of elections and Israeli unilateralism will not solve the conflict.