Home Page

Now for some hard-headed realism

By Daniel Levy; Haaretz, 24.02.06  

 Judging by recent Israeli government statements, our strategic foreign policy goal now revolves around convincing Khaled Meshal and friends to adopt the central tenets of Zionism. Only someone with a Weissglasian sense of humor could include among the preconditions set for Hamas the acceptance of Oslo (long abandoned by Israel) and the road map (Israel had 14 reservations, and in any case systematically ignores this document).

Leave aside for a moment the absurd notion that any proud Zionist might require the Hamas kosher stamp of approval to legitimize our national rights. One month after PLC elections, the moment to start facing hard policy choices is approaching, even against the backdrop of our own election campaign.

For more than a year, the Israeli official message was simple: Abu Mazen and his Fatah friends' sugar-coated words were irrelevant - we wanted to see action, deeds. Suddenly, the equation has been turned on its head. The disciplined adherence by Hamas to the cease-fire is irrelevant - all we have become interested in is their words. In a psychological reverse somersault, the declarations of Arab leaders are now everything. So what are Israel's policy options? There would appear to be three.

The one currently making the rounds is for Israel, the U.S., some of Europe, and perhaps moderate Palestinians to join forces in precipitating the collapse of a Hamas-led PA. The Palestinian public, deprived of donor aid, and such bankable "promises" as an airport, seaport and Gaza-West Bank link one day (but in their lifetime?) would see the error of their democratic choice and embrace the warm hug of Fatah moderation.

In Weissglasian terms, the diet would have its desired effect. But to pull this one off, we would have to calibrate policies that make sense in Palestinian terms, to a Palestinian audience. This requires a degree of sophistication and goodwill that we have blatantly failed to display in the past. Somehow the corrective effect on the Palestinian public psyche of endless collective punishment and tough love has been found wanting. We already failed Abbas once, and with little prospect of such a policy being pursued with much nuance or subtlety, the results are depressingly predictable.

The combined sense of despair, injustice, and anger at U.S.-Israeli hypocrisy will feed the hard-liners and encourage the Palestinian public and body politic to take a further lurch to the extremes. Hamas and the Palestinians are not Ahmadinajad, the Taliban or Al-Qaida, but more displays of Israeli and U.S. expertise in winning hearts and minds, and we may send them there.

A second option is centered around working with and through Abu Mazen as the PA President and PLO Chair. Abbas becomes, excuse the expression, the "shabbes goy" for establishing arrangements and even reaching agreements with the Palestinians. Ideally, this approach would have the acquiescence, silent nod or open facilitation of Hamas leaders, and this may even be a prerequisite for its viability. An understanding could be reached that any negotiated outcome be put to a referendum among the Palestinian public. This may also offer the best shot at reviving the flagging fortunes of Fatah, and theoretically at least, could at the same time offer Hamas a convenient way out of some of their own new dilemmas. It would, though, require an Israeli willingness to negotiate in good faith with Abu Mazen and to take a leap of faith regarding his capacity to deliver.

The third option, which does not necessarily stand in competition with the second, is to test the limits of Hamas' capacity for political co-optation and moderation. To be credible, the performance benchmarks for Hamas must be tough but fair. No free pass, but no premeditated failure. The test, initially at least, should focus on actions, not words, with an emphasis on the security realm and maintenance of the cease-fire. When Hamas leaders visit Turkey, for instance, Israel should be seeking to influence the content of the conversation, not obsessing with the diplomatic niceties of who exactly receives them. Third party channels to Hamas will be important in exploring possibilities, intentions, and yes, limitations. Hamas will only really be challenged to reform if the targets set for them make sense, and if a political endgame horizon is finally put on the table. Israel may soon discover, paradoxically, that even unilateralism requires a predictability of behavior on the other side, and it clearly has an interest in understanding better what is feasible in a new Hamas era. Henry Kissinger was forthright in suggesting that (IHT, February 15) "whoever governs Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the parties will be impelled by propinquity to interact on a range of issues."

American prospects for achieving a tolerable outcome in Iraq now rely on the cooperation of radical Islamists such as Muqtada al-Sadr - who praises 9/11 and has yet to become a card-carrying member of AIPAC. These are the hard realities for the U.S., with its 130,000 troops on the ground. Israel has all its troops and its civilians on the ground. Let's stop pretending there are easy, unilateral options. Reaching out to Abbas while actively exploring Hamas' capacity for moderation should represent the hard-headed realist's choice.
Daniel Levy was an advisor in the Prime Minister's Office, a member of the official Israel negotiating team at the Oslo B and Taba talks and the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.