TEL AVIV (JTA) – The Hamas coup in Gaza last week may seem like a victory for Iran and its followers, who now have a foothold on Israel’s doorstep. But if Israel plays its cards wisely, it may turn things around.
Since the 1979 Israel-Egypt Camp David Accords, Israel has been on a quest to end its responsibility over the Palestinian population. This quest is rooted in the need to preserve the delicate balance among four of Zionism’s basic values and visions: individual and collective security for Jews; humanism, liberalism and democracy; the Jewishness of the State of Israel and the Jewish majority in it; and the desire for sovereignty in the areas where Hebrew civilization was conceived.
The Six-Day War destabilized Zionism as Israel assumed responsibility for millions of Palestinians. Indeed, the Israeli-Palestinian political process may be framed as a painful journey to restore Zionist equilibrium through territorial compromise.
Many strategies to do so have been tested since 1979. They include the “Jordanian Option,” “Interim Agreements,” “Permanent-Status Agreement,” “Self-Governing Palestinian Authority” and “Unilateral Disengagement.” Every prime minister since Yitzhak Shamir has taken a significant step in this direction: Shamir’s Madrid Summit of 1991, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres’ Oslo Accords of 1993-95, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Wye River Memorandum of 1998, Ehud Barak’s Camp David 2000 and Ariel Sharon’s Gaza Disengagement of 2005.
Against this backdrop, the current Israeli government intended to bring this process to a close by “converging” from the West Bank. However, these plans were aborted due to the election of Hamas in January 2006, the Second Lebanon War last summer and the constant firing of Kassam rockets from Gaza to Israel.
Hence, it has been nearly 18 months that Israel has been at a political impasse facing a double-headed Palestinian entity. Hamas controlled the Palestinian Legislative Council and therefore the government of the Palestinian Authority. Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas was its chairman. The Palestinian ideological and political stalemate was compounded by a constitutional and structural deadlock. No one could move.
Israel has not been able to come up with an adequate response. We were not able to fight Hamas properly because of Fatah, nor were we able to engage Fatah politically because of Hamas. We have been at a standstill with no agenda to serve our own existential interests.
Last week we were suddenly unstuck. Whereas our military dilemma has not changed, we now face a Hamas-controlled Gaza and a Fatah-dominated – or so we hope – West Bank.
On the military side, the dilemma surrounding an Israeli ground operation in Gaza has not changed. The military logic is to stop Kassams and prevent Hamas’ military buildup by seizing territory and engaging its armed forces. But Israel’s national security logic is to never again assume responsibility for the 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza.
This is a clash of logics that has no resolution. So far the latter national security logic has been “winning” and Israel has been avoiding a large-scale military operation. At the moment, Hamas’ victory doesn’t change that fundamental equation.
But what should be the new political logic? The answer is rooted in our fundamental interest in ending our control over the Palestinians. However, in the new reality, Gaza and the West Bank merit separate approaches.
While the Hamas victory is a potential setback for this goal, in certain respects, if forced to face the Islamic fundamentalist group, Israel now has it where it wants it.
First, Hamas for the first time assumes full control and responsibility over the Palestinian population in Gaza. Finally it is fully exposed to the tensions between its ideology and the needs of the population, with no Fatah to blame for its failures, although Israel is always there to serve as a scapegoat.
Second, being associated with the Egyptian opposition movement of Islamic Brotherhood and under sponsorship of Iran, Hamas is now more clearly an adversary of Egypt and not just of Israel. Hence, incentives for Egypt to act decisively against the smuggling of weapons have dramatically increased.
Third, the slow process of international recognition of Hamas now will be frozen.
Finally, Israel now has solid political and legal ground to further disassociate itself from Gaza. The new Gaza situation calls for further decisive actions such as cutting off any formal or practical ties except for acute humanitarian needs. This should include the dismantling of the shared customs role and a freeze on the trafficking of goods to and from Israel.
At the same time, we can now re-engage Fatah in the West Bank. The new Palestinian government headed by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is the most moderate for which one could ask. Alleviating the economic and political boycott and fostering negotiations may open the way for Israel to end our responsibility over the Palestinian population in the West Bank as well.
Concerns that the West Bank may become a platform for military activity against Israel are valid. No one and nothing can guarantee that this will not happen. But there are a few noteworthy differences from Gaza.
For one, Jordan has consistently been more aggressive than Egypt in fighting Islamic terrorism in all its forms. Also, Fatah is stronger in the West Bank. Finally, the West Bank is simply different in its demographic, economic and social makeup.
Therefore, our policy should be to empower Abbas and the new Palestinian government, to transfer to them attributes of statehood and to stabilize their economy. We now have the opportunity to engage them in a political process with the purpose of establishing a Palestinian state in provisional borders or to agree on terms of reference for a permanent status.
In this context, one should keep in mind that the infrastructure for separation between Israel and the West Bank Palestinians, i.e. the security fence, is inching its way to completion. At that point, more than 95 percent of the settlers will live west of the fence and a similar percentage of Palestinians will live on its eastern side. This is a piece of real estate that constitutes transformative politics.
Israel’s challenges have not been made easier by last week’s developments in Gaza. But its flexibility to serve its interests has increased dramatically. The Hamas victory can be turned into a Pyrrhic one.
(Gidi Grinstein is founder and president of the Re’ut Institute, a Tel Aviv-based think tank.)