April 9, 2008
Number 04/08 #04
This Update features several thoughtful pieces on the security dilemmas Israel faces as it attempts to meet US requests to ease conditions in the West Bank, and considers how to deal with the spiralling Gaza rocket problem.
First up, the British Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) has an excellent analysis of the extent of Israel’s recent efforts to meet US requests to ease up on roadblocks and other security measures on the West Bank. It highlights the tension between Israel’s security needs and America’s interest above all in strengthening the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas – whether or not this leads to a peace deal with Israel – as a way of containing the spread of regional Islamic extremism. For this valuable overview of the competing goals being sought and the inevitable disagreements, CLICK HERE. Highlighting the security risks to Israel of measures like removing roadblocks in order to strengthen the Palestinian Authority are the Jerusalem Post, and Yuval Dichter, head of the Shin Bet security service. An argument that the American administration knows it has to be careful in respect of its efforts comes from Haaretz US correspondent Shmuel Rosner.
Next, Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl looks at why Israeli officials say that a large-scale military operation into Gaza looks inevitable, even though they acknowledge that it would destroy or damage peace efforts with Abbas which they want to succeed. Basically, they point out that Hamas will be able to block any deal anyway, if not dealt with, and that massive smuggling is making the hope of doing so ever more costly for Israel, both in terms of soldiers’ and civilians’ lives. Moreover, a truce would only worsen this problem. For this important summary of the reality of Israel’s Gaza dilemma, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Israeli Moshe Elad argues that negotiations over kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit are being use as a last ditch ploy from an increasingly desperate Hamas.
Finally, Prof. Robert O. Freedman, distinguished American academic expert on Israel and its strategic situation, confronts the arguments of those who say Israel must talk to Hamas, and demolishes them one by one. These arguments are: terrorist groups must be engaged in order to moderate them; peace with the Palestinians is impossible without Hamas; and this is the only way to protect Sderot and other southern Israeli towns from rocket attacks. For Freedman’s explanation of why each of these arguments is fallacious,
Readers may also be interested in:
- Israel has actually demolished an additional 10 West Bank roadblocks as well as the 50 promised to the Americans.
- Qassam rockets continue to fall on Israel.
- They also continue to accidentally kill Palestinians. More on the number of Palestinians accidentally or intentionally killed by other Palestinians engaged in violence is here.
- A former Palestinian terror leader says Palestinians are marching toward total ruin. Plus, an interview with another former Palestinian terrorist who has become pro-Israeli.
- The plight of Sderot according to the New York Times, and according to Sderot residents.
- Barry Rubin on media coverage of the Gaza situation.
- Israel reportedly finds a tunnel out of Gaza intended to smuggle terrorists into Israel.
- A good piece on the successful model of diversity Israel represents by academic Alexander Yakobson.
BICOM ANALYSIS, 08/04/2008
- After meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on 30 March, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak announced a package of measures designed to alleviate restrictions on Palestinian movement and economic activity in the West Bank. Most prominent among them were the removal of over 50 roadblocks and the reopening of a dozen checkpoints last week, easing the flow of people and goods between Palestinian towns. Specific provisions were also made for new police deployments, security infrastructure, housing construction and economic development.
- These actions are occurring amid a sense of frustration which has come to characterise the relationship between Condoleezza Rice and Israeli leaders since the Annapolis conference last November. This paper sets out the context of that frustration, which is perceived as a natural tension emanating from the juxtaposition of external political pressure against domestic security concerns. Israel’s international partners tend to think more strategically about Israel’s long term security interests whereas Israeli decision-makers, in the face of everyday threats of terror infiltrations and rocket attacks, are usually focused on tactical planning for ongoing security.
- The external pressure derives from a U.S. administration whose time to record accomplishments is running out. As such, Condoleezza Rice’s recent visits have focused primarily on delivering real benefits to the Palestinian people which will (i) be chalked as achievements in themselves and (ii) support the case for secular Palestinian nationalism by bolstering President Mahmoud Abbas.
- Domestic security concerns are due to the reality that, whilst improving conditions in the West Bank, the practical measures to which Israel is committed essentially amount to security concessions. Defence experts point to the risk that the removal of roadblocks in Jenin or Qalqilya will facilitate terror attacks in Netanya or Tel Aviv. Israeli politicians are cautious about giving the green light to any initiative which could come back to haunt them in this way.
- These international and domestic dynamics explain the natural tension between Washington and Jerusalem. Most importantly, however, Israel is making cautious progress in implementing its international commitments; if the PA works harder to combat terror, as Fayyad promised Rice they would, further steps will be possible.
Israel has carried out significant measures designed to improve the economic and security situation on the ground for Palestinians living in the West Bank. The development follows promises made by Defence Minister Ehud Barak to Condoleezza Rice during the U.S. secretary of state’s second visit to Israel within three weeks in March. A Jerusalem Post article last week highlights the understandably tactical nature of Barak’s recent security thinking, noting how “Barak has publicly resisted easing … travel impediments for the Palestinians, on the grounds it might increase the odds of a terror attack.”[i] This discourse has led to the idea that the former prime minister, famous for having offered more to the Palestinians at Camp David in 2000 than any other Israeli leader, is being obstructive vis-à-vis the peace process itself.[ii] American columnist David Ignatius, who is reportedly “close to Rice”,[iii] cited a “senior Administration official” claiming that Israel was not doing enough to relax roadblocks and “checkpoints that are a daily headache and humiliation for the Palestinians.”[iv] Perhaps to negate such claims, Barak arrived at his trilateral meeting with Rice and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad with a 35-page document in English detailing the steps Israel would take.[v] This article examines the key measures Barak brought to the table in the broader context of U.S. pressure and ongoing Israeli security concerns.
American diplomatic pressure has several dimensions. On one level, the delivery of real benefits to the Palestinian people can be chalked as an achievement for the Bush administration, regardless of whether parallel negotiations serve as a basis for a final agreement. More critically, Washington hopes that better living standards will make the case for secular nationalism within Palestinian society. Israel shares this interest (as of course do the west generally and moderate Arab regimes) in bolstering the PA in order to offset the threat of Hamas and other radical influences in the region.
On the other hand, the new measures to assist the Palestinians have clear security ramifications which are a cause of frustration that cannot be overlooked. For example, the U.S. has expressed discomfort with the IDF’s refusal to rely on PA security forces and preference to act independently.[vi] This has put Barak in a difficult position, as illustrated by a Haaretz report last week of collusion between PA security forces and terrorists based in the West Bank. Intelligence to which Barak was privy included an account of how, following Israeli authorisation to deploy 500 Palestinian police in Nablus, local militants had been dismantling bombs upon the PA police’s arrival and simply rearming them following their departure.[vii] Reservations resulting from evidence of this sort are undoubtedly a source of friction because they undermine Condoleezza Rice’s agenda and constrain significantly the extent to which Israeli leaders feel able to comply with U.S. requests. In such circumstances, the tension is natural and reasonable. From an Israeli perspective, the onus is now upon the PA to reform its security services and produce an effective counter-terror strategy.
Israel’s measures to assist Palestinians in the West Bank
On 30 March, Ehud Barak announced a package of measures which are designed to alleviate restrictions on Palestinian movement and economic activity in the West Bank. The most significant step was the removal last week of over 50 roadblocks preventing access in the areas of Jenin, Tul Karm, Qalqilya and Ramallah. Many of the 580 roadblocks[viii] in the West Bank are dirt obstacles which are not permanent constructs. Implementation was in accordance with Barak’s pledge to Condoleezza Rice at the turn of the month, and is being overseen by Lieutenant General William Fraser, appointed by Rice to ensure Israeli and Palestinian compliance with their commitments.
Other key measures include:
– A commitment to remove the permanent checkpoint in Rimonim. In total, the IDF opened 12 checkpoints in the West Bank last Thursday;
– Approval for the establishment of Palestinian police stations in areas under Israeli security control (known since Oslo as Areas B and B+);
– The stationing of 700 Palestinian police and security personnel in Jenin (to be deployed in several months, following their completion of U.S.-supervised training in Jordan);
– Plans for lifting additional roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank, with the intention of implementation by mid-May;
– Approval for the delivery of 25 Russian manufactured Armed Personnel Carriers (APCs);
– Approval for the delivery of 125 vehicles, plus logistical equipment, for the Palestinian security forces;
– The revival of an agreement last year that will allow the Palestinians to build a new neighbourhood with up to 8,000 homes near Ramallah.
Further measures will help facilitate economic development in the West Bank, including detailed cooperation with travel arrangements to the forthcoming Business Conference in Bethlehem in May, with which Quartet special envoy Tony Blair is involved. Following bilateral talks between British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, there are talks of a follow up conference to the Bethlehem initiative in London. Other projects within the economic sphere with which Israel is cooperating have led to the issuing of an additional 5,000 permits for construction work in Israel (at present, 18,500 permits have been issued), the immediate opening of the Sha’ar Ephraim Crossing for commercial activity on Fridays, and advancing plans for establishing Industrial Zones in Jericho and Hebron, with major roles for Japan and Turkey respectively.[ix]
Under pressure, applying pressure: the Bush administration’s final push
The Annapolis conference, and subsequent renewal of the peace process, initially set the stage for negotiations on the ‘core’ issues at stake in creating an independent Palestinian state (namely, refugees, borders, and the status of Jerusalem). Whilst resolution of these – the most intractable – issues is theoretically possible in the remaining months of the Bush presidency, a final status accord in the present political climate is far from guaranteed.[x] In particular, no clear solution currently exists to the problem of Hamas’s control of the Gaza Strip, which has generated a deep ideological rift in Palestinian society. Secular Palestinian nationalists support a two-state solution which Hamas rejects. With just seven months to go before the American presidential elections, Washington feels a heightened sense of urgency to accomplish substantive achievements and to keep the process ‘alive’. Martin Indyk, U.S. ambassador to Israel and assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration, has vocalised how he feels the focus now should be on ensuring the next president inherits a working process in order to avoid a repeat scenario of the Clinton-Bush handover, which was a perception of hopelessness following Camp David and a subsequent reluctance to engage for the lion’s share of Bush’s term.[xi] This thinking has translated into greater pressure on Israel to introduce new measures to support the PA, hence the package of concessions outlined above.[xii]
This is the context of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s emphasis on achieving pragmatic steps consistent with the 2003 Roadmap. In reality, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are complying sufficiently with their Roadmap obligations, which is at the heart of the frustration all parties are feeling. However, as a Haaretz editorial observed upon Rice’s arrival in Israel, it is difficult for the Secretary to address her concerns at the PA because President Abbas does not have a firm grip on power and the Palestinians are themselves divided.[xiii]
This touches upon a deeper logic underpinning Rice’s approach, regarding the American and western strategic interest in proving the case for secular nationalism in the face of the growing power of radical elements in Palestinian society. America’s bottom line is its wider interest – shared with its allies in the Persian Gulf and other moderate Arab regimes – in halting the spread of political Islam in the region, which in part involves stopping Islamic fundamentalists from ‘taking total control of Palestine’. That can only be achieved by supporting the PA, which means providing them with the tools to deliver changes on the ground from which the Palestinian people will absorb tangible benefits.
In the post-Oslo era and early days of the Roadmap, Israeli concessions were intended as confidence-building measures as a precursor to a full and final peace deal. Today, lifting roadblocks, opening checkpoints, authorizing the transfer of military hardware and offering special dispensations for Palestinian businesspeople are not indicative of a new level of trust between the parties; their aim is to try to improve quality of life so that the Palestinian public will stick with their secular leaders who take regular meetings with the Israelis and Americans. Indeed, the desire to try to bolster the PA in this way has arguably propelled the American diplomatic impetus to pressure Israel to do more to make life easier for Palestinians under Fatah jurisdiction in the West Bank.
A natural tension due to domestic security issues
International diplomatic pressure notwithstanding, Israel is concerned with making substantive bilateral progress with the Palestinians as a national policy goal.[xiv] As Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is heading negotiations on the ‘core’ issues, commented during Rice’s visit, “[t]ime is of the essence. Stagnation and stalemate [are] not the Israeli government policy; it doesn’t serve our own interest.”[xv] However, from a military perspective, it is the less complex logistical matters, such as dirt obstacles, checkpoints, and police deployments, which are considered a vital means of preventing terrorists (indistinguishable as they are from civilians) from reaching Israel.[xvi] Major General (Res) Jacob Amidror, Director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs and former commander of the IDF National Defence College, attributes the construction of roadblocks directly and unequivocally to Palestinian terrorism. He recalls that as a young officer serving in the West Bank city of Ramallah in the 1970s, “there was not a single roadblock in the West Bank and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians worked freely inside Israel every day without passing any checkpoints or roadblocks.”[xvii]
After over 5,500 rockets and mortar shells have struck Israel’s western Negev in the south since 2001,[xviii] and a heightened feeling of vulnerability in the north since the 2006 Second Lebanon War with Hizbollah, Israelis in the country’s populated centre and coastal belt feel as though the West Bank is a tinder box waiting to spark. In that vein, positive developments as they are in terms of alleviating hardship on Palestinians in the West Bank, the measures which Condoleezza Rice persuaded Ehud Barak to take last week essentially amount to security concessions, whose consequences require careful consideration by defence planners.
Barak is of course not only having to balance humanitarian considerations with security but also trying to gear the Labour Party up for elections. There are notable tensions between Barak and the other top defence official, Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, which international assessors are conscious of when trying to establish whether Barak is acting with his personal political motives in mind or in the name of his job title.[xix] His desire to become prime minister again is clear, and he would not contemplate leaving the coalition if his reputation for security whilst serving as defence minister is blemished.
Israeli politicians are historically accustomed to such dilemmas. For instance, reflecting on three suicide bombings carried out by Hamas in February-March 1996, Shimon Peres commented, “[W]e had redeployed our army from 450 villages and six cities in the West Bank…Instead of thanks, we got bombs”.[xx] The conundrum remains at the forefront of Israeli policymakers’ minds today, as Prime Minister’s spokesman Mark Regev underlined last week: “Unfortunately, throughout the West Bank you have terror cells – whether Hamas, Islamic Jihad or renegade Fatah – and they present a real and present danger to the public. If we were to take down the checkpoints in an unthinking way, we may get a good headline one day but have a wave of suicide bombings the next.”[xxi] Clearly, security concerns are at the very essence of understanding the inevitable tension which is generated by international pressure on Israel of this kind.
Condoleezza Rice’s diplomatic campaign makes clear that the U.S. Secretary of State is adamant about witnessing concrete improvements on the ground in the West Bank which she hopes will stem the threat of political Islam in this pocket of the region. The Israeli government also has an interest in West Bank stability, not least because intelligence assessments warn of the threat of Hamas expanding its sphere of control beyond Gaza. Rice is seeking to recreate the rules of the game in which Hamas has been successfully reaching out to the Palestinian nation with a message interpreted by veteran international commentator David Makovsky as, “Look, we are the defenders of the people, Abbas is having cocktails with the Israelis”.[xxii] So dismantling roadblocks and upgrading Palestinian security are intended in part to complement progress on the ‘core’ issues being secretly negotiated but more critically to support the case for secular Palestinian nationalism. Though frequently referred to in the media as “goodwill gestures”[xxiii] on Israel’s part, there is a danger of overlooking the associated security implications of implementing such measures, which require careful planning by Israeli defence specialists. If the weapons currently being transferred to the PA later fall into Hamas hands, Barak’s prime ministerial ambitions will be dealt a severe blow. Ultimately, a natural tension exists with the U.S. because the concessions being requested of Israel have an intrinsic security dynamic which Israeli politicians cannot afford to ignore.
[i] ‘Analyze This: Can Condi’s three generals help her out-maneuver Barak in the West Bank?’, Calev Ben-David, The Jerusalem Post, 31 March 2008. http://www.jpost.com
[ii] This line of thought has been strengthened by intense criticism from within the Labour Party, where there is dissatisfaction with the leader’s failure to produce a cohesive social policy agenda or national vision. As Israel Harel wrote, “His main flaw, everyone agrees, is that he has no agenda” (‘Labor, lost’, Haaretz, 3 April 2008), Barak was chastised for having embarked on a “political path no one understands and which he himself is not bothering to clarify” (‘Fooling ourselves’, Haaretz editorial, 1 April 2008)
[iii] ‘The Return of the “Roadmap” – A Shift in the Annapolis Process’, Aluf Benn, INSS Insight, 20 March 2008.
[iv] ‘Annapolis’s Fading Hope’, David Ignatius, Washington Post, 9 March 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com
[v] ‘Rice says deal possible before May’, The Jerusalem Post, 31 March 2008. http://www.jpost.com
[vi] ‘Annapolis’s Fading Hope’, David Ignatius, Washington Post, 9 March 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com; ‘The Return of the “Roadmap” – A Shift in the Annapolis Process’, Aluf Benn, INSS Insight, 20 March 2008.
[vii] ‘PA Security Forces Coordinate with Terrorists in Nablus’, Barak Ravid, Haaretz (Hebrew edition), 29 March 2008. http://www.haaretz.co.il
[viii] ‘Rice Returns to Her Mideast Treadmill’, Tim McGirk and Jamil Hamad, Time, 31 March 2008. http://www.time.com; ‘Israel to Remove 50 West Bank Barriers’, Griff Witte, Washington Post, 31 March 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com
[ix] Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs Newsletter, 1 April 2008; ‘Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s Trilateral Meeting With Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Defense Minister Ehud Barak’, U.S. Department of State, 30 March 2008. http://www.state.gov; ‘Israel to Remove 50 West Bank Barriers’, Griff Witte, Washington Post, 31 March 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com
[x] Interview with Mark Weiss, IBA Television News, 3 April 2008.
[xi] The Final Year: End of Term Presidents and the Middle East, Washington Institute for Near East Policy Podcast, 2 December 2008.
[xii] ‘Responding to the final effort’, Haaretz editorial, 30 March 2008; ‘The Return of the “Roadmap” – A Shift in the Annapolis Process’, Aluf Benn, INSS Insight, 20 March 2008.
[xiii] ‘Responding to the final effort’, Haaretz editorial, 30 March 2008.
[xiv] ‘Fooling ourselves’, Haaretz editorial, 1 April 2008.
[xv] ‘Rice says deal possible before May’, The Jerusalem Post, 31 March 2008. http://www.jpost.com
[xvi] ‘Palestinian Terrorism Created Need for Roadblocks, Expert Says’, Julie Stahl, CNSNews, 31 March 2008. http://www.cnsnews.com
[xvii] ‘Palestinian Terrorism Created Need for Roadblocks, Expert Says’, Julie Stahl, CNSNews, 31 March 2008. http://www.cnsnews.com
[xviii] See BICOM Fact Sheet 1: Rockets from Gaza – Facts and Figures, 22 February 2008 for more details. http://www.bicom.org.uk
[xix] ‘Security and Defense: On the defensive?’, Yaakov Katz, The Jerusalem Post, 29 March 2008. http://www.jpost.com
[xx] Israel: A History, Martin Gilbert, 1998, p. 593.
[xxi] ‘Israel to Remove 50 West Bank Barriers’, Griff Witte, Washington Post, 31 March 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com
[xxii] ‘The Gaza Challenge: Hamas, Rockets, and the Use of Terror as a Weapon’, David Makovsky, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 14, 2008. http://www.washingtoninstitute.org
[xxiii] Interview with Mark Weiss, IBA Television News, 3 April 2008; ‘Palestinian Terrorism Created Need for Roadblocks, Expert Says’, Julie Stahl, CNSNews, 31 March 2008. http://www.cnsnews.com
By Jackson Diehl
Wall Street Journal, Monday, April 7, 2008
Seven years ago George W. Bush’s incoming foreign policy team blamed the Clinton administration for an eleventh-hour rush for a Middle East peace agreement that ended with the explosion of the second Palestinian intifada. Now, with less than 10 months remaining in office, Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are engaged in a similar last-minute push — yet they don’t seem to recognize the growing risk that their initiative, too, will end with another Israeli-Palestinian war.
Rice visited Jerusalem again last week to press for visible Israeli fulfillment of commitments made at last year’s Annapolis conference, and she appeared to win some incremental steps, such as the dismantlement of a few dozen of the several hundred military roadblocks in the West Bank. Yet a more significant Israeli signal may have been delivered by the stream of senior officials who have quietly been visiting Washington in the past month: Israel, they have been saying, is on course for a major conflict with the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip.
That battle seemed on the verge of beginning a month ago, when Hamas for the first time began firing Iranian-made missiles at the Israeli city of Ashkelon — in addition to the volleys of homemade rockets it has been aiming at the smaller town of Sderot for several years. After a punishing series of Israeli airstrikes the fighting subsided, and with the State Department’s encouragement Egypt began to broker discussions about a more enduring truce. In previous columns, I’ve argued that such a cease-fire in Gaza is the least bad of Israel’s limited options.
But officials portray Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak as having little interest in a deal with Hamas. They acknowledge that a suspension of attacks by both sides might make the ongoing peace talks easier — and that the outbreak of an all-out conflict would almost certainly kill the Annapolis process. Yet, increasingly Israeli officials see the confrontation in Gaza with Hamas as more important in strategic terms than the talks with moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The view in Jerusalem, as more than one official put it to me, is that there is no alternative to a military collision with Hamas in Gaza, probably before the end of the Bush administration.
The grim Israeli view is driven to a large degree by what officials say is the massive and continuing smuggling of weapons into Gaza, sponsored by Iran and tacitly allowed by Egypt, which despite considerable pressure from Washington shrinks from actions that might trigger its own confrontation with Hamas. Hamas is building hardened bunker systems and stockpiling missiles in imitation of the infrastructure built in southern Lebanon by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement. The Israelis say hundreds of Hamas militants have traveled to Iran for training in targeting and firing Grad missiles, Iran’s version of the old Soviet Katyusha.
Sobered by the bloody nose it suffered when it attacked Hezbollah’s Lebanese base in 2006, the Israeli army has been training against Hamas’s Gaza strong points. But officials say that the longer the army waits to take on what is now viewed as a strategic threat, the greater Hamas’s chance will be to inflict heavy casualties or strike southern Israeli cities with missiles. The cease-fire Egypt seeks (and that Hamas sometimes says it wants) would only make the problem worse, in the Israeli analysis, by giving Hamas the opportunity to accelerate its buildup.
Bush and Rice would like Israel to hold off against Hamas until Olmert can complete an agreement on principles for a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement with Abbas. While Olmert still wants that deal, it’s become increasingly clear to the Israelis that an Abbas-led government will never be able to implement it. Despite extensive international aid, the West Bank Palestinian administration remains little more than a shell kept in power by Israel’s troops. Hamas, the Israelis say, can stop the peace process at any time by resuming missile attacks against Ashkelon. And whatever happens in Gaza — whether an Israeli-Hamas truce or all-out war — Abbas stands to be further damaged. His prime minister, Salam Fayyad, has hinted privately that he might favor an Israeli attack on Hamas, because it would allow Abbas’s Fatah movement to take control of Gaza. But Abbas’s security forces are unlikely to be strong enough to control Gaza’s population of 1.5 million anytime soon.
The Israelis say the coming confrontation won’t necessarily involve a full-scale reoccupation of the Gaza Strip. Given the predictable international backlash against any Israeli offensive, and the inevitable satellite television coverage of suffering Palestinians, Olmert is likely to wait for a clear provocation from Hamas. Perhaps it won’t happen for a few more months. But what concerns some Israelis is the lack of readiness by the Bush administration for the possibility that its drive for Mideast peace will be overwhelmed by a Mideast war.
Dr. Robert O. Freedman
Balitmore Jewish Times, April 4, 2008
In the aftermath of the recent Israeli incursion into Gaza, which proved unsuccessful in stopping rocket attacks into Israel, and given the rising popularity of Hamas in Palestinian public opinion polls, suggestions have been made that the time has come for Israel to begin negotiations with Hamas. This has been heard in the United States, Europe, and even Israel.
There have been three main arguments for this change in Israeli policy.
• First, it is argued, it is necessary to talk to a terrorist organization in order to get it to change its policy, just as Britain did with the Irish Republican Army.
• Second, for there to be a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Hamas, which represents a significant proportion of the Palestinians, must be brought into the peace process, lest it sabotage it with rocket fire from Gaza.
• Finally, for Israeli towns like Sderot to ever know peace, a negotiated agreement with Hamas is needed. All three arguments are fallacious.
Let’s explore each issue.
Talking to terrorists: The example of the IRA is a misleading one. The IRA never had as one of its goals the destruction of Great Britain. By contrast, the avowed goal of Hamas — a goal that has not changed in the more than two years since it won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January 2006 — is the destruction of Israel.
A better example to look at is the evolution of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The United States and Israel refused to have any negotiations with the PLO until it changed its policy calling for the destruction of Israel and also renounced terrorism, something that the organization finally did in November 1988.
Thus for Israel, the United States and/or the European Union to begin talks with Hamas before it met these requirements, would give diplomatic legitimacy to its call to destroy Israel, and reward its terrorist actions, something that would only encourage more terrorism in the future.
Promoting a Palestinian- Israeli peace agreement: Here the argument is that Hamas must be enticed into joining Fatah’s efforts to make peace with Israel, and the way to do this is to negotiate with it.
Given the fact that the organization is headquartered in Syria, and is strongly supported by Iran, the possibility that Hamas would change its policy before there was a Syrian- Israeli peace agreement is highly unlikely. In addition, the prospects for a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement, given the growing ties between Iran and Syria, are distant at best. Indeed, it is more likely, should Hamas and Fatah reconcile, that Hamas would pressure Fatah into taking a more militant position vis-a-vis Israel.
Providing peace to Sderot: There are a number of problems with this argument.
First, if Israel and Hamas negotiated a cease-fire, what would prevent Hamas from exploiting the time to further consolidate its hold over Gaza, and smuggle in the kinds of weapons through the porous border crossing with Egypt, which would not only threaten Sderot, but Tel Aviv as well?
Second, Israel’s negotiations with Hamas would undermine the position of Mahmoud Abbas — a position that is not too strong to begin with — and possibly facilitate a Hamas takeover of the West Bank.
Finally, the very act of negotiating with Hamas, if it were undertaken by Israel, would give diplomatic legitimacy to the Hamas call for the destruction of Israel.
Under the circumstances, what is needed is not negotiations with Hamas, but strong military action against it. This time, Israel should not undertake a brief incursion, but a major invasion of Gaza to uproot Hamas once and for all.
If the Israeli leadership doesn’t take such action, it risks Hamas growing into an even greater menace to the State of Israel than it is today.
Dr. Robert O. Freedman is Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone professor of political science at Baltimore Hebrew University and visiting professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. Among his publications are “Israel in The Begin Era,” “Israel Under Rabin,” “Israel’s First Fifty Years,” and the forthcoming “Contemporary Israel: Israeli Political, Economic and Strategic Challenges Since Rabin,” (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2008).