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Mideast Policy in a Fantasy World

A member of the Hamas security forces atop the legislative council building in Gaza Saturday.
A member of the Hamas security forces atop the legislative council building in Gaza Saturday. (By Hatem Moussa -- Associated Press)

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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, July 9, 2007

During Ehud Olmert's visit to Washington last month, I asked a senior Israeli official to explain what the prime minister thought would be the result of his policy -- quickly embraced by the Bush administration -- of isolating the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip. Since Hamas's coup against the secular Fatah party in mid-June, Israel has allowed in international aid convoys and continued to supply power and water, but otherwise sealed off the territory and its 1.5 million people.

His answer: As conditions worsened, Palestinians in Gaza would grow steadily more disgruntled with Hamas. Eventually, they would turn on their rulers, and the rump Islamic state that threatens to take hold between Egypt and Israel would collapse. Fatah -- which Israel and the United States are supporting in the West Bank -- would regain control.

In other words, Israeli policy is counting on Gaza's impoverished and largely uneducated population to stage the first popular revolution against a domestic government in the modern history of the Arab Middle East. It also assumes that people suffering from extreme privation will respond by demanding a more moderate government.

If this reasoning is far-fetched, it's at least consistent. Ever since Hamas won Palestinian elections at the beginning of last year, Olmert and the Bush administration have adopted a string of failed policies based on ever-more-unlikely scenarios. They began by betting that a diplomatic and aid boycott would either cause Hamas's collapse or force it to formally recognize Israel's right to exist. Then they calculated that the Middle East could be divided into "extremist" and "moderate" states, with the moderates -- including Saudi Arabia -- lining up with Israel against Iran and Hamas. Now they are supposing that they can back the weaker side in an intra-Palestinian power struggle and ensure that it comes out on top.

So far the result of these wishful strategies has been to make Hamas stronger and Palestinians as a whole more radical. The greatest threat to the Gaza regime at the moment is not Fatah but still more bloodthirsty gangs, such as Islamic Jihad and Army of Islam. Many people believe al-Qaeda will soon be a serious factor.

If there's one thing holding Hamas back, it is its own fanciful thinking. Take last week's release of the BBC journalist Alan Johnston, to which Hamas devoted itself soon after ousting Fatah. This was not a simple good deed or an attempt to restore order in Gaza. Hamas's leaders, such as the Damascus-based Khaled Meshal, were clearly calculating that by freeing a Western journalist they could gain international recognition. Like Meshal's earlier supposition that forming a "unity" government with Fatah would end the Western boycott, this was unfounded -- the European Union quickly announced that its policy toward Hamas was unchanged.

What the fantasies of Hamas and Israel have in common is the supposition that they can ignore each other -- except when they are exchanging missiles and bombs. Israeli policy consistently assumes that the Palestinian Islamic movement can be wiped out, or at least eliminated as a military and political force. Hamas bets that it can ultimately win international recognition and acceptance without abandoning its goal of destroying the Jewish state.

In reality, probably the only way forward in the Middle East is for Israel and Hamas to start to come to terms with each other, however provisionally, while accepting that Hamas's formal recognition of Israel, and Western acceptance of Hamas, will come at the end rather than the beginning of the process. Only if they decide on a full-fledged cease-fire will there be a chance to end the violence -- and head off the growing risk of another multi-front war in the Middle East. Only if Hamas agrees to free the Israeli soldier it is still holding hostage, Gilad Shalit, will there be a major Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners. If Israel is to stick to its promise to reduce roadblocks and illegal settlements in the West Bank, it will need Hamas's tacit cooperation -- one suicide bomb by Hamas would quickly reverse any Israeli retreat. And Western governments will find it difficult to do even rudimentary business with Hamas unless Israel goes first.

Why should Israel cut deals with an extremist movement dedicated to its destruction? Won't it undercut Palestinian moderates who still hope to negotiate a two-state settlement or encourage Islamist movements elsewhere in the Middle East? The answer is unsatisfactory but irrefutable: Ignoring reality, and Gaza, is a mistake that Israelis as well as Palestinians can no longer afford.


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