the acceptance of all previous agreements signed
between Israel and the Palestinian Authority beginning in 1994.
The hard-line right in Israel, led by former
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is also eyeing the upcoming
Though polls show Netanyahu's Likud party is
likely to fare poorly, his lieutenants are ratcheting up the pressure
on Olmert. The name they use for him is "Smolmert" -- a play
on the Hebrew word for leftist, "smol."
This tactic has not translated into popular
support for Likud; Olmert's center-right Kadima party is still far
ahead in the opinion polls.
Hamas -- perhaps with an eye looking back on
its election triumph -- is standing firm. The movement was elected on
a platform of internal reform. Hamas' victory disproved the
long-argued Arab position that internal reform could not occur in the
Arab world so long as the conflict with Israel persisted.
But Hamas was also elected by voters who viewed
the vote as an expression -- or perhaps assertion -- of defiance:
defiance against the United States and Israel who warned Palestinians
against electing Hamas; defiance against Palestinian leaders who
failed to achieve statehood through diplomatic means; defiance against
an Arab world that has long provided rhetorical lip-service but
hypocritically banned their own opposition movements from taking part
in electoral politics.
Chance for change?
Hamas' 1988 foundation charter, to say the
least, is problematic. It is viciously anti-Jewish and filled with
But as one Hamas leader recently pointed out,
"The charter is not the Quran ... it can be changed."
Under what circumstances?
Here is where Israel must decide whether it
will pursue a policy that risks short-term gain and long-term disaster
or a more nuanced form of strategic thinking.
In the short term, Olmert is making decisions
based on the upcoming March 28 Israeli elections. He wants to win and
he doesn't want the right wing exploiting his political decisions at
But watch what happens after the election.
Olmert knows, deep in his heart, that the majority of the Arab world
will not fully accept a Jewish state in the land they've viewed as
Palestine for a long, long time.
Even with comprehensive peace agreements that
may result in declarations that DO recognize a Jewish state, the
acceptance of this geographic reality -- among the Arab masses -- may
not emerge for generations.
The comparison can be made with virtually any
other conflict related to land. It took time for Germans to accept the
loss of what they called "east Prussia" (parts of modern-day
Poland and Russia) or the Alsace region in France. Many Hungarians
still regard parts of Romania as their rightful land. Greeks still
refer to Turkish Istanbul as "Constantinople" -- the
spiritual capital of Eastern Orthodoxy for centuries.
But what all these one-time conflict zones have
in common is the popular acceptance of reality. Simply put, no Greek,
German or Hungarian is, today, going to embark on a campaign to win
back these lost territories. All the countries involved have strong
diplomatic ties, albeit with widely different interpretations of
The basic lesson here is that, ultimately, the
march of history determines political outcomes far more than
short-term policy. In Israel's case, imposing wide-ranging economic
sanctions on the Hamas-led government may ultimately play directly
into the movement's hands.
Hamas will not be under public pressure to
reform the government if it can't pay for those reforms.
The movement will seek to broaden its ties to
the wider Islamic world, threatening to increase the chances that the
Arab-Israeli conflict becomes less one about nations and more one
And finally, and most importantly, it is
probably wrong to think that ordinary Palestinians will become more
moderate if their government is isolated. The election of Hamas is a
case in point.
Ordinary Palestinians are unlikely to seek
solace in the less-strident Fatah party if Hamas fails to achieve
diplomatic victories. There is no historic precedent that shows a
people under economic siege become more moderate as a result of
Israel will not win the type of recognition it
seeks from Hamas so long as both sides pursue an increasingly
belligerent stance toward the other. It is a chicken-and-egg problem
which will, undoubtedly, require one side to crack the egg first.
Hamas can't do it immediately. Neither can Israel for its own internal
But sooner or later, Israel will come under
immense international pressure to ease up on its economic sanctions
towards the Palestinian territories.
At this point, Israel has a choice: either
prepare for a sustained period of international pressure or take
control of policy early and continue previous economic arrangements
conditional on the absence of large-scale violence.
If, six or seven months from now, Hamas proves
itself to be a responsible, and stable steward of government, the
world will probably be prepared to deal with it, whether or not it
moderates its historic positions toward Israel.
If Hamas leaders are rhetorically calling for
the destruction of Israel to shore up support on the street, but
practically preventing violent attacks against Israelis, Israel will
find itself isolated rather than the reverse.
When he was in charge, Ariel Sharon used to say:
"We will judge the Palestinians on their actions, not words."
Certainly Sharon would've taken a hard-line stance against Hamas. But
at the same time, his successors cannot ignore Sharon's mantra.
If Hamas exceeds international expectations,
Israel risks being the loser. If Israel wants to maintain its
negotiating position, it has to accept that Hamas will have to be
dealt with so long as its actions do not reflect its words.