Mideast’s New Reality

It’s not often that Mel Weiss is heard complimenting President Bush. But after hearing the President’s response to the victory of Hamas in last week’s Palestinian elections, that’s just what Weiss did.

Weiss — one of the country’s most prominent lawyers, a longtime Jewish community leader and major force in Democratic politics — said that Bush was on target when he praised the Palestinians for conducting a free and fair democratic election, one of the very few ever to have taken place in the Arab world.

“The President has been telling the Arabs to embrace democracy,” he said. “The Palestinians have, and that is a good thing.”

Not only that, Weiss said, but the fact that Hamas won need not be seen as a death blow to the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian peace but rather as an opportunity. Weiss believes that Hamas, unlike the current Palestinian leadership, can be held responsible for its actions.

“We all knew that Fatah couldn’t deliver,” he said. “But now we have Hamas, which carried 57 percent of the vote. It has the power, and it has the confidence of the people. And the Palestinian people are going to expect results.”

Weiss has no illusions about Hamas’ views of Israel. But he believes that a “government is not the same as an insurgency. It deals with a different reality.” He thinks that the U.S. government can and must help shape that reality.

Weiss is not much worried about what the leaders of Hamas have to say. They can hang on to their rhetoric. His concern is that they maintain the cease-fire with Israel and start moving toward accommodation with it.

“I refuse to see this as a disaster,” Weiss said. “These are people who can make a deal stick, who can control the bomb-throwers, who can’t hide behind excuses. I can’t predict what will happen, but there is at least a possibility of progress.”

Possibility is, of course, the key word. For all we know, the idea of a Hamas that eschews terrorism and is politically responsible is wishful thinking. Weiss knows that. He abhors the terror that Hamas has wreaked upon Israel and recognizes how hard it is even to contemplate dealing with people responsible for murdering hundreds of innocent passengers on buses and teenagers at discos.

The fact is that Hamas has consistently undermined chances for peace. It is now up to Hamas to demonstrate that it is willing to change its ways and not as a mere tactic either.

That is probably what most Palestinians expect it to do. They did not choose Hamas because Hamas opposes peace with Israel, but because they want better and more secure lives (not likely to happen if Hamas starts firing missiles at Israel). The majority of Palestinians — like the majority of Israelis — support the two-state solution. Nor did the mostly secular Palestinians choose Hamas because they want a religiously fundamentalist state like Iran.

No, they voted for Hamas primarily because they view the Islamic organization as honest, as compared to the long-entrenched Fatah movement. The Palestinians decided to “throw the bums out,” focusing more on whom they did not want in power.

That is what Bush was alluding to when he said that the Palestinians, like any people, “want government to be responsive…. The people are demanding honest government. The people want services. They want to be able to raise their children in an environment in which they can get a decent education and they can find health care…. There’s something healthy about a system that does that.”

But the president was also clear about what the United States wants: “I don’t see how you can be a partner in peace if you advocate the destruction of another country as part of your platform.”

If Hamas won’t accept Israel’s right to exist, Bush said, the United States will not deal with Hamas.

If a Hamas-run Palestinian Authority attacks Israel or allows Israel to be attacked, Israel will respond. In fact, the substitution of Hamas for the more moderate Fatah clarifies Israel’s situation. It need no longer worry about whether retaliation for some terror outrage weakens the PA. vis-a-vis Hamas.

With Hamas running things, there is a clear place to which Israel can direct a military response. Any attack by Hamas will invite a strong Israeli response that will undermine its support from the majority of Palestinians who want the killing to stop. It would also ensure that Hamas remains an international pariah.

To his credit, Bush made clear that he was not going to prejudge anything. “The Palestinians don’t have a government yet,” he said. He would wait and see what happens next before he decides what the United States would do. His two constants were that the United States wants to see “two democracies living side by side” and would not deal with a government determined to eradicate its neighbor.

Bush’s words were echoed by Avi Dichter, the former head of Israel’s Shin Bet who is now a rising star in the new Kadima Party.

“The Palestinian Authority will no longer be able to make a distinction between itself and Hamas,” he said. “As of today, they are one…. If it thinks as a statesman and joins the family of nations, it will find us to be an attentive partner. But if it uses terror in its deliberations, it will find itself under an unprecedented Israeli onslaught that will give immunity to no one, including Hamas’ elected officials.”

The Israeli public seems to agree. Polls published by the two major Israeli dailies found a tentative willingness to deal with Hamas. About 48 percent of Israelis would support negotiating with Hamas if it drops its goal of destroying Israel.

Hamas’ victory was not inevitable. Much, much more could have been done to strengthen Palestinian moderates. Israel’s far right, of course, is delighted with the Hamas triumph. By now, that is not even surprising. Extremist Israelis are delighted when their Palestinian counterparts win. And vice versa.

Nevertheless, it is jarring, even a little nauseating, to hear right-wing Israelis declare, that “now Israel has no partner,” when a few days before they were insisting that Mahmoud Abbas was no partner. I never quite understood the term “crocodile tears,” but I’m sure it applies here.

But now is not the time for recriminations but for some serious thinking. The international community, led by the United States, has an even greater responsibility than previously. If the new Palestinian government maintains the cease-fire with Israel, which must be the sine qua non for any future dealings with it, then the United States, Europe and others can use incentives to encourage moderation and, in good time, progress toward accommodation.

The United States and its allies must also address the new Palestinian reality in the context of the regional situation. Notably, both Iran and Syria are tied closely to Hamas.

If Iranian money continues to flow into Hamas coffers, then the Palestinian government will have little incentive to comply with U.S. or European Union demands. And if Khaled Mashal, the hard-line political leader of Hamas, is allowed to continue operating freely from his base in Damascus, it will be difficult for the Gaza and West Bank Hamas leadership to develop independent policy.

For the United States, a Hamas-run Palestine is a subset to the problems it already faces from Iran and Syria and can be confronted as such.

For Israel and its supporters, the bottom line is securing Israel from terrorism and maintaining a democratic and Jewish state. Despite the monumental events of the past month — from the incapacitation of Ariel Sharon to the Hamas victory — nothing has changed the reality that moved Sharon from champion of greater Israel to champion of disengagement.

Sharon led Israel out of Gaza. The next prime minister will need to lead Israel back to borders that are both defensible and have the maximum number of Palestinians living under Palestinian rule and not Israel’s.

Hamas’ victory does not change that, because disengagement and withdrawal was never conceived of as a gift to Palestinians but as critical steps that Israel must take for its own good, even its own survival. As Ami Ayalon, another former Shin Bet chief and a senior member of the Labor Party, put it:

“Hamas’s victory establishes a new reality in the Middle East. We have to wait until the dust settles in order to fully plumb the depths of this reality and study its complexities, but the State of Israel’s main strategic objective has not changed: We wish to disengage from the Palestinians and preserve a Jewish and democratic state.”

The Hamas win is a political tsunami. But when the waters recede, the terrain will be pretty much what it was last week. If anything, the logic for disengagement is even stronger.

MJ Rosenberg is the director of policy analysis for Israel Policy Forum. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the organization.