Tuesday’s Israeli election was supposed to be different from other Israeli elections. It was supposed to be not only about security–which justly dominates Israeli concerns–but also about the serious social and economic problems facing the country. This had been the consensus view ever since the socialist trade-union boss, Amir Peretz, took over the Labor party a couple of months ago in a surprising upset victory over the world-famous Shimon Peres. The populist Peretz announced that his campaign would focus on the issue of the growing poverty in Israel, which he proposed to solve by raising the minimum wage and by increasing government intervention in the economy.
Since Peretz believes that social betterment also depends on a formal peace treaty with the Palestinians, he also vowed to reopen, without preconditions, peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. He would negotiate, he promised, even if the Authority failed to fulfill its former pledges to disarm the Hamas terrorist group that has vowed to destroy Israel, or for that matter its own rogue groups that are themselves waging a terrorist war on Israel.
But then, as often happens in the Middle East, reality mugged the dreamers and reshuffled the political cards. After a short respite, terrorist attacks resumed, followed by the landslide Hamas victory in the Palestinian Authority elections. Israeli politics went back to its previous focus on security. The top issue became how to deal with Hamas. Should Israel cut all ties with the Authority, now that it is governed by a group that insists on the total destruction of the Jewish state? Or must Israel–under immense pressure from the Europeans, and some from the U.S.–keep at least those relationships going that will enable the Palestinians, for humanitarian reasons, not to face the consequences of their calamitous choice of Hamas?
No one can predict with certainty how Israel will resolve this dilemma, but a look at why the landslide Hamas victory was such a surprise can provide us with significant clues about the future.
THE EXPERTS WERE WRONG
In actuality, the landslide Hamas victory was quite predictable. It had won recent municipal elections, and there had been mass demonstrations celebrating Israel’s unilateral withdrawal as a Hamas victory. Two decades of misrule by a dictatorial, corrupt, and dysfunctional Palestinian Authority–a regime that intentionally destroyed a prosperous Palestinian economy and plunged most of its population into grinding poverty–were provoking fury and desperation in the Palestinian electorate.
It was also predictable that the “cycle of violence” that Arafat’s government kept igniting–forcing Israel to take severe measures, some appropriate but some (such as total closures that punished all of the population while not really harming the terrorists) counterproductive–would inflame even greater hatred; and that this hatred, after being redirected by the Authority against Israel, would end up benefiting Hamas. Hamas was in a better position to exploit this anger, because the Authority could not go as far as Hamas could in a no-holds-barred war against Israel, and because it was also often portrayed by Hamas followers as Israel’s accomplice if not its creation. (The Oslo agreements between Israel and the PLO had actually helped impose this criminal government on the Palestinians, and then kept propping it up.)
Growing hatred against the Arafat government’s use of kidnapping, rape, violence, and blackmail, as well as its pillaging of its own citizens, made Palestinians eager to throw the corrupt rascals out. Hamas’s victory came, really, by default–because the Palestinian Authority had acted maliciously and stupidly, and because short-sighted Israeli politicians had done little to stop it.
The Israeli framers of the Oslo agreements–chiefly the visionary Shimon Peres and his manipulative sidekick Yossi Beilin–improbably convinced themselves, and deluded many others, that they could exploit a cabal of secular terrorist mafias, controlled by Yasser Arafat, to fight religious terrorist fanatics, such as Hamas, and thus secure an immediate peace. They, along with their fellow believers in the “peace process” (including all European chancelleries and the U.S. State Department), chose to ignore all warning signs, even those pointing to the wider danger to the West posed by a Hamas that was rapidly becoming a proxy for Iran.
Oslo was a disaster in yet another way: It brought to an end a most promising, though non-political, process of economic collaboration that was leading to gradual reconciliation between Arabs and Jews. From the 1967 Israeli conquest of the disputed territories to the 1987 Intifada, Israel followed a laissez faire policy. It maintained open bridges with Jordan and did not interfere in Arab internal affairs. Israel’s maintenance of a modicum of law and order in these territories facilitated the development of trade and rapid economic growth. Crowds of Israelis ate and shopped on weekends in Arab towns and markets. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian workers, who were freed from backbreaking drudgery on primitive Arab farms by Israeli-introduced modern farming techniques, moved from a bare-subsistence existence in the backward Palestinian economy to far more lucrative jobs in the growing Israeli economy.
The outcome was dramatic. The GDP of the Palestinians more than quadrupled. Education levels rose, and some seven universities were established where none had existed before under Jordanian rule. Health levels also rose; as a consequence, the Arab population mushroomed. There were remarkably few terrorist attacks during all this period. The few that happened were mostly perpetrated by PLO hirelings and did not express popular support. Not that the Arabs were enamored of Israeli occupation: No one likes an occupation. But they apparently found the occupation a lesser evil than Arab rule, because they realized the enormous benefits it brought to them. (This was even more evident after Oslo, when Palestinians learned first hand what PLO rule meant: When it was rumored that Arab sections of Jerusalem were to be ceded to the Palestinian Authority, real-estate prices plummeted.)
What changed so dramatically between 1967 and the recent Hamas victory? How did the consequences of Oslo and the establishment of a Palestinian Authority turn a gradual reconciliation between Palestinian Arabs and Jews into open Palestinian support for the eradication of Israel?
ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL COLLAPSE
In their authoritative book about the first Intifada, Ehud Yaari and Zeev Schiff cited as a major catalyst for its eruption the sharp economic decline that had preceded it. This economic downturn was initiated by a recession in the Gulf States, where many Palestinians were employed. But it was greatly accelerated by shortsighted–indeed, stupid–changes in Israeli policy. As Israeli bureaucracy strengthened its grip over the disputed territories, it abandoned the old laissez faire policies. It imposed heavy taxes and harassed businessmen with discriminatory regulation designed to protect Israeli monopolies.
These mistakes–along with the economic disruptions caused by Israel’s failure to quell the Intifada, and the growing momentum of earlier social dislocations caused by contact between a permissive Israeli society and a more restrictive, tradition-bound Arab society–have exacerbated the anger of the Palestinian Arabs toward Israel.
But the strongest impetus for the festering pool of pathological Jew-hatred was given by Arafat’s own Palestinian Authority, which devoted huge amounts of money–from donations from Europe and the U.S.–and great effort to mounting a relentless hate campaign against Israel and against Jews. Israeli leaders, under the spell of Oslo, have almost totally ignored this vicious campaign.
The PA exploited the hate it generated to stoke the fires of its low-level terror war against Israel. But this “low intensity” war has incited a level of bitter hatred and thirst for revenge that it doesn’t have the ability to quench. The Authority has thus become the victim of its own hate campaign, as an extremely radical and murderous Hamas offered a far better outlet for this hatred than the Authority ever could or dared.
The Israeli leadership, too, facilitated the Hamas victory–by failing to fight terrorism effectively, and by bowing to U.S. and European pressures to let Hamas participate in the recent PA elections. Instead of going after Hamas’s self-proclaimed terrorist leadership in one fell swoop–in a determined and relentless fashion, the only way such a war can be won–they fought intermittently and ineffectively. This slow-drip approach, whereby Israel would impose ineffective closures and try to assassinate two or four Hamas terrorist leaders a month, allowed Hamas to reorganize after each attack, often with covert and overt Egyptian help. This made Hamas seem invincible, while imposing hardships on the Arab population. The closures made worse the economic misery intentionally caused by the PA–and a growing part of the population was pushed further into the lap of Hamas.
The major divide in the present election campaign is between Kadima–the party established by Ariel Sharon, and now led by Ehud Olmert–and the Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu. Polls predict that Kadima, a hodgepodge collection of Likud and Labor politicos, will garner between 33 and 37 seats to the Likud’s 15 to 19 seats (there is a huge swing vote in these elections). It therefore seems likely that Kadima will be the party that will form the next government. Ehud Olmert recently stated that he will continue unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank, and cede most of the area to the Palestinians. Olmert apparently believes–and the polls indicate that about 40 percent of an exhausted Israeli public wants to believe with him–that once Israel withdraws and hunkers down behind its security wall, Israel could become, as he has put it, “a fun place to live in.”
Writing in the left-wing Ha’aretz, Ari Shavit–one of Israel’s most respected pundits and a fervent supporter of withdrawal–termed Olmert’s proposal “a mortal danger to Israel.” Ceding territories to the Arabs without prior agreement that they will be strictly demilitarized, he argues, will only help establish an irredentist Hamas state that can gradually wear Israel down by a prolonged war of attrition supported by Iran and Syria.
So it seems that Oslo-style fantasies persist, to the effect that a terrorist organization would be willing to grant Israel peace once Israel extended it legitimacy and independence. Indeed, there is already talk about recognizing a Hamas government if it “renounces terrorism” (a verbal exercise they are good at) and of offering a Hamas government “humanitarian aid”–which, like former humanitarian aid given to the PA, will be used to release funding for vicious propaganda and an intensified campaign of terrorism that can easily deteriorate into an all-out war.
Netanyahu and his Likud party keep reiterating that Hamas is a mortal danger that must be confronted, sooner rather than later. But Israeli politicians, like politicians everywhere, and alas much of the Israeli public too, do not like to bite the bullet. The rest of the West–which does not seem to realize the broader danger that Hamas poses, both as a proxy for Iran and as a model for other fundamentalists’ takeover of regimes through democratic elections–is not encouraging Israel to face the tough facts. It is unlikely that Israel will start fighting Hamas effectively before Hamas consolidates its power and threatens Israel more seriously. Hamas’s deadly determination to act on its convictions may be what will finally wake up the Israeli leadership to the harsh realities created by the Hamas victory. The awakening will come–at the cost of innocent blood, unnecessarily shed.