In only three months, the Palestinians will probably hold the Arab world's most democratic elections ever and receive international legitimacy. But the possibility of a party victory for the extremist militia Hamas -- the Islamic Resistance Movement -- or any significant success by Hamas candidates is a cause of worry for many.
This is not a result yearned for by advocates of democracy and peace, including the Bush administration, which endorsed the achievement of peace between a Palestinian state and Israel in the "road map." The president's Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative was put forward as an antidote to the sense of political powerlessness that breeds terrorism. It would be ironic, indeed, if the ideal of democracy were to empower the terrorists of Hamas, who murder innocent civilians to prevent the achievement of such a peace.
To respond effectively, three facts about Hamas must be soberly faced:
First, the aim of the Hamas movement is not the end of Israeli occupation, nor is it the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Hamas's aim is to take over Palestinian society and impose Islamist rule. For this reason, Hamas poses a greater threat to Palestinian secular parties than it does to Israel.
Second, Hamas is not just a terrorist organization. It is a movement supported by many in Palestinian society, though still a minority, as the recent Palestinian municipal elections proved. Hamas attracts much of its broad following by operating an effective welfare infrastructure that serves desperate public needs, especially in Gaza.
Third, even if Hamas does win many seats in the Palestinian parliament, it will not cease to be a terrorist organization. We must not delude ourselves into thinking that government responsibility will lead to Hamas's self-moderation. With this type of radical Islamist movement, there is no distinction between armed and political actions, which serve the same goal. At the core of this movement is a terrorist ideology that denies the rights of another people and coerces an entire society into a fundamentalist Muslim lifestyle. Whenever it serves its cause, Hamas will use terrorism against Israel and the Palestinian government.
Anyone who wishes for Israeli-Palestinian peace and a democratic Palestinian state must also wish for the downfall of Hamas. This militia must be defeated politically, militarily, economically and culturally. This is not a one-night or a one-week operation, but a process that must aim to diminish Hamas's popular support, dismantle its military strength and negate its potential to lead a Palestinian government.
Under current conditions in the Palestinian territories, especially given the Palestinian government's weakness, political containment should precede the dismantling of Hamas's military infrastructure. The urgent objective is to defeat it in the next parliamentary elections. Steps that could strengthen it in the elections should be strictly avoided. Attempts to postpone the elections yet again, or to prevent Hamas's participation, or Israeli disruption of the elections as "punishment" for the participation of Hamas, will strengthen Hamas in the Palestinian street instead of weakening it.
The short time left before the elections must be used to empower all who oppose Hamas, first and foremost the supporters of the elected Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. Accelerated fulfillment of the pledges of investment and support made to the Palestinian Authority must begin without delay. Rapid creation of jobs and income sources will bring renewed hope to the people of Gaza and the West Bank.
The international community and the wealthy Arab states should play a critical role in this. They must make clear to the Palestinian people that such assistance will continue only if the territories are ruled by a government that turns to peace and negotiation and does not tolerate terrorism. Projects donated in cities where Hamas has taken over must be suspended. To show Palestinians that their independence will be achieved through negotiation, not through terrorism, the "Quartet" -- the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- must schedule a new timetable for the implementation of the road map, including commencement of permanent-status negotiations.
Israel would prefer that the Palestinian government initiate military confrontation with Hamas as soon as possible and prohibit its participation in the elections. Now, however, these demands are impractical.
We must admit that Israel's unilateral decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip substantially empowered Hamas in the Palestinian street. Israel's lack of generosity toward Abbas has made it difficult to demand of him things that, for now, he cannot deliver. Israel will contribute most to the political defeat of Hamas in January if it facilitates the international community's efforts to reach out and support Hamas's rivals.
The writer, a retired Israeli general who served as military governor of the West Bank, is chairman of the Labor faction in the Knesset and the subcommittee on defense planning and policy.