Jerusalem — The end of illusions is always clarifying, but not always comforting. So a grim realism is the mood here in the wake of the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last year, which was met first by the election of a Hamas government to run the Palestinian Authority, and now by rocket attacks into Israel and a crisis over the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier.
Israel’s withdrawal itself required the shattering of illusions. The Israeli Right had to give up its dream of a Greater Israel. The Israeli Left had to abandon its dream of a negotiated peace with the Palestinians. Both were fantasies, but anyone who imagined that leaving Gaza would transform Palestinian politics or Israel’s security for the better has watched those comforting notions sink as well.
Hence, the low rumble of disenchantment here. (I’m part of a delegation of visiting journalists sponsored by the pro-Israel American Israel Education Foundation.) Since the Oslo agreement, one Israeli official notes the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic has been gripped by “a spirit of confidence destruction.” If Oslo offered a vista of (false) hope, very little hope of any kind seems on offer now: “Everything we do today is a fallback plan,” the official says. “There are no options that don’t have negative fallout.”
The hope was that withdrawing from Gaza and creating a security fence around the Palestinian territories would basically allow the Israelis to wash their hands of the Palestinians. The fence has been spectacularly successful where it has been completed, reducing suicide bombings by 90 percent or more. So why worry about the intricacies of Palestinian politics? As one Israeli official puts it, “If they want to create a Taliban-style Islamic government in Gaza, that’s their problem, not mine.”
Except Palestinian radicals can routinely jump the security fence, in the form of the Kassam rockets they are pouring into Israel from Gaza. If Israel were to pull out unilaterally from the West Bank, as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert talks about, major Israeli population centers would be within Hamas rocket range.
What to do? No option is appealing. Seek to collapse the Hamas government? That might only make Hamas more popular. Re-occupy Gaza? If Israel wanted to occupy Gaza, it wouldn’t have left. Give the Palestinians some positive inducement? “What are we going to do for them,” an Israeli official sardonically asks, “pull out of Gaza?”
The cleanest solution is for the Palestinians to reform themselves. In this sense, Palestinian politics still very much matters to Israelis. “The question now is whether the Palestinians have the inclination and the capacity to build a state,” says Israeli elder statesman Shimon Peres.
Roughly speaking, Palestinian politics is dominated by terrorists — as represented by Hamas — and corrupt terrorist-enabling incompetents — as represented by Fatah, the late Yasser Arafat’s organization. Pity the Palestinians if Fatah is their best hope for rational government. Former Arafat negotiator and elected Fatah representative Saeb Erekat admits that Fatah needs to reform. “We’re not doing it,” he says, “and have no excuse for not doing it — I don’t feel like lying today.”
Something of a model for a way forward is southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah dominates and has a significant rocket capability that it handles with restraint. Like Hamas, Hezbollah is a terrorist organization with a role in government, but Israel has managed to establish a somewhat stable deterrent relationship with it. Hezbollah knows that if it goes too far, Israel will hit back hard.
Perhaps it will be possible to establish a similar deterrent relationship with Hamas. One senior Israeli security source says, for now, that means forcing Hamas “to choose between their regime and their terror.” It might be that Hamas can never be made to moderate its behavior. And still looming is yet another crisis — the approach of a nuclear-armed Iran, whose deterability Israel obviously can’t determine with trial and error.
It’s a good thing Israel is abandoning illusions. It can’t afford them.
(c) 2006 King Features Syndicate.