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Rabbi Moshe Reiss

The Israeli - Palestinian conflict: Part C







Neither the government of Israel as represented by Sharon and his heirs nor Hamas are interested in negotiating a peace treaty for a two state solution; in fact both prefer a long term interim truce, for different reasons.


That is one of the bases of Strategic Unilateralism.


Sharon’s objective was to negotiate an interim long-term agreement with the Palestinians. It became obvious to Sharon that the Palestinians would not agree. He could not even bring Abbas into this process. Recognizing the demographic pressure and both American, European and other international pressures Israel had to take some action. Sharon chose a way for Israel to move forward without negotiating with the Palestinians. 77% of Jewish Israelis, before Hamas’ victory, believed there was not a Palestinian partner for peace. It was unilateralism.  The Gaza disengagement was the first step. But the strategy is more that withdrawal from the center of the Arab population. Withdrawal will be based on military needs and will alleviate internationally pressure.


Sharon while a strong supporter of the settlers, was never either religious or a messianic. The settlers see him as betraying them; their faith is religiously based on God given land; Sharon’s never was. His position was based solely on Israeli security as he perceived it; when security needs changed he changed. He chose a route that would bring less bloodshed and more stability. It appears the majority of Jewish Israelis agree.


Hamas victory had little to do with destroying the State of Israel. Abbas may be necessary as a moderating force. However in his one year as President he did not advance towards a Palestinian state but continued Arafat’s corrupt, ineffective and inefficient policies with the result being a dysfunctional and failed Palestinian Authority. Abbas continued the policy of spending more than 70% of the funding on a dozen competing security and intelligence services. Why was the money not spent on education, welfare and health services? Hamas with its social movements in both Gaza and the West Bank filled that role and consequently won the election.


Mahmoud Zahar, Hamas spokesman stated their position; if Israel "is ready to give us the national demand to withdraw from the occupied area [in] '67; to release our detainees; to stop their aggression; to make geographic link between Gaza Strip and West Bank, at that time, with assurance from other sides, we are going to accept to establish our independent state at that time, and give us one or two, 10, 15 years time in order to see what is the real intention of Israel after that." Is this an open-ended truce in exchange for a well-armed and independent Palestinian state; a prolonged cessation of hostilities, but no peace treaty and no resolution of the conflict's underlying issues.


Abdul Aziz al Rantissi the late head of Hamas, assassinated by Israel,  stated in 2003 that it could take 100-200 years to liberate Palestine (Haaretz, June 18, 2003). Perhaps it will take a future generation or two to end this conflict.


All Palestinians were aware that Fatah favored negotiations with Israel and Hamas opposed them. But they were equally aware that no peace process was in sight. In the weeks before the election Fatah gangs engaged in kidnappings, violent attacks on government offices and attacks on each other. A vote for Hamas was for law and order and against domestic violence and chaos.

There is little doubt that in the immediate future chaos will ensue in Gaza and the West Bank cities; as a result of funding crisis and the numerous competing Palestinian security organizations. 

There have been two kinds of responses to Hamas victory in the Islamic-Jihad press and websites: One is to criticize Hamas for participating in the elections which are considered a western ideology and secondly to use their victory to help the welfare of the Palestinian people.

In the Israeli press there are also different responses. Steven Plaut, Professor at Haifa University states that nothing has changed since Fatah and Hamas have the same ideology (Arutz Sheva January 26). Others believe that the ‘pragmatic moderate’ Hamas leadership will take over the Palestinian Authority and proverbially fix the potholes as any responsible and functional government would. They as opposed to Fatah are a disciplined organization. With one exception that kept the truce for ten months – the exception was after Israel killed 19 Hamas fighters. Despite winning only 44% of the votes compared to Fatah’s 41% they won 75 seats compared to Fatah’s 45. (When Abbas was elected in January 2005 he won 63% of the vote.) They managed their candidates in the district based seats (half of the seats had districts and half nationally elected) to win and did; 45 out of 66. In the national election Hamas won 30 to Fatah’s 27.


What will the likely transition to a Palestinian government be like? Months! Some think President Mahmud Abbas may have more power today than he would if Fatah had won the elections.  Hamas needs him to maintain order, the United States and Israel need him as a negotiating partner, and Palestinians need him to prevent a civil war (Robert Malley, International Crisis Center). Abbas can veto legislation requiring two thirds to overturn; Hamas does not have two thirds of the seats.


Abbas says he will take over the various security services; when Abbas was Prime Minister and Arafat as President refused him control over the security forces he resigned. Would a Hamas Prime Minister do the same? Abbas clearly has failed to consolidate the twelve security forces in his year of office. The numbers in these forces are estimated as between 50,000 – 60,000; this excludes non PA terrorist groups including Hamas (another estimated 10,000 fighters).  Lieutenant General William Ward, the U.S. appointed coordinator for reform of the chaotic Palestinian security apparatus, told Congress that the PA has failed even to fulfill the requirements that would bring significant international financial and material assistance to the security forces. He said Palestinian security services were overstaffed, poorly armed and undermined by rivalry between security chiefs as well as by corruption. Hamas has said it would consolidate them all into a Palestinian Army. How will they solve the problems stated by Ward? How will Israel react to a Palestinian Army?


Israel is very important to the Palestinians. They provide electricity and water. They collect tax receipts and through customs receipts provide about $50 million a month that pays for administration. Israel controls, with the exception of Rafah, all access into and outside the territories. Will Hamas appoint Salam Fayyad as prime minister and Mohammad Dahlan for security, and create a technocrat cabinet? That could be very appealing to the West.



Arthur Lord Balfour stated when issuing his declaration in 1917 "I have no idea what the result will be, but I am certain that it will lead to a very interesting situation." The two most critical events in the Palestinian world in the eighteen months are the death of Arafat and the victory of Hamas. Are they connected? Almost certainly. But who guessed that as a result of Arafat’s death the largely secular and peace signatory Fatah would fall to the largely religious and non-negotiating Hamas? (A very significant number of Arab Christians voted for Hamas. Does anyone think that was on religious grounds.)


In these unchartered waters I have no idea what the end result of Hamas victory may be except for more troubled waters. I recall my favorite American philosopher stating that ‘prediction is hard especially about the future’ (Lawrence ‘Yogi’ Berra).


If a relatively successful Palestinian state ensues it can only be if Hamas decides on a pragmatic approach. If they fail the danger is not only to Israel but to Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Cairo, Amman, Riyadh and the Arab League have already suggested to Hamas that it moderate its position with regard to Israel. Are Egypt and Jordan as concerned about Hamas as is Israel? The next critical date, at the latest, is in four years. Will there be elections in four years or will the "one person, one vote, one time" theses prove true?


Hamas has not changed its spots; it believes from a religious perspective that the State of Israel cannot remain in Islamic land. It has not yet accepted that they cannot militarily win over Israel through terrorism. Democracy and terrorism are inconsistent strategies. It may take Hamas 10-20 years until they recognize that.

Israel cannot militarily occupy the Palestinians indefinitely and remain a democratic state. By controlling almost 80% of the original Palestine and being within the Middle East a military superpower Israel has the power to force the Arab nations to react to its actions.

The short term future is impossible to predict, but the long term (a generation) is not. The Radical Islamists will lose not only to the West but equally to a multipolar world in which China, India and Japan will clearly be major players as might be other countries.


Fareed Zakaria wrote in his Newsweek column (January 19), "The great obstacle to progress in the Middle East is no longer Israeli intentions but rather Palestinian capabilities. The big story that no one wants to admit yet is that the Palestinian Authority has collapsed, Gaza has turned into a failed state and there is no single Palestinian political organization that could create order in the territories and negotiate with Israel. Palestinian dysfunction is now the main limiting factor on any progress in the peace process."


Israelis say that only the right can make peace. Could this be equally true for the Palestinians?




Prime Minister Ariel Sharon adopted unilateralism as a policy of disengagement and separation in order to ensure the existence of a democratic state with a Jewish majority. Sharon appealed to the aspirations of much of Israel’s Jewish electorate. For many years, opinion poll has found a clear majority of Israelis thoroughly weary of the occupation and its attendant problems. At the same time, an equally large majority has endorsed the view, that “there’s nobody to talk to” on the Palestinian side. 


This resulted in a strategy of unilateralism. Its first step was the Gaza disengagement.


Unilateralism includes ignoring the roadmap, deciding on ‘temporary’ borders without negotiation, making decisions about settlements wholly based on Israeli interests and reacting to terrorism independent of the Palestinian Authority. The victory of Hamas confirms that the strategy of unilateralism will continue.


The Gaza disengagement plan has now been implemented but not without great internal dissent. That dissent is still being sorted out between Israel’s religious community itself and between the religious and secular community. The Jewish fundamentalist’s dream of a Greater Israel - a nightmare to many Israeli’s and to all Palestinians – has ended. Ariel Sharon is the first Israeli Prime Minister to confront and challenge and win against the significant ideological fundamentalists of the Greater Israel thesis who have controlled Israeli policy regarding the conflict with the Palestinians. Sharon’s strategic policy of unilateralism does not require Palestinian cooperation. 


It is most important to note that the Sharon disengagement plan was Unilateral; it was not based on negotiation nor on reciprocity. Peace requires negotiation, disengagement does not and security may not. The disengagement may solidify Israel’s borders in line with the demographic situation.


This differs radically from previous strategies engaged by both major political parties and previous governments. Unilateralism reflects a trend which is likely to continue with any Palestinian leadership. It is already clear, only several months after the Gaza disengagement that it will be a long time until stability and order rule in the Gaza. One could even construe this unilateralism by the Jewish State as a decision that for the medium future Israel has withdrawn from the usual Middle Eastern Muslim politics. It is an attempt to take control, to the best that is possible, of its own strategic life. 


This unilateral strategy has been confirmed by Ehud Olmert as acting Prime Minister and leader of the new Kadima party. He stated in Herzliya

“We will not be able to continue ruling over the territories in which the majority of the Palestinian population lives. We must create a clear boundary as soon as possible, one which will reflect the demographic reality on the ground. . . . The choice between allowing Jews to live in all parts of the land of Israel and living in a state with a Jewish majority mandates giving up parts of the Land of Israel. We cannot continue to control parts of the territories where most of the Palestinians live." (Herzliya Conference, January 24)


Can unilateralism succeed in the West Bank without some help by the Palestinians? Closer coordination will be required than was required in Gaza. If the West Bank is so impoverished and cut off that it descends into an anarchic, violent, failed non-state Israel will suffer. To be successful in Israeli terms, disengagement must include some real economic integration. (We will discuss this in more detail in a separate column.) That can only happen if Hamas creates a calm situation in Gaza and the West Bank cities.


Will Hamas develop their own Unilateralism? Do not the statements by Rantissi and Zahar noted above suggest that? Can parallel unilateralism work? I believe it is the only strategy that will work for at least a  score of years.



Democracy, the key foreign policy of President George Bush, has had unintended consequences – it opened up the genie of electing radical Islamists. James Glanz (New York Times) stated it as follows: “America's little chemistry experiment had blown up in its face."


The authoritarian regimes supported by various American administrations of the last decades had disastrous outcomes for U.S. interests in the Arab world.

Islamist movements are today the major opposition political force in most Arab countries. No amount of U.S. or European support for liberal and secular politicians will change this reality for the foreseeable future. The liberals in the Islamic world have virtually no organized constituencies. But both all Islamists are violent.

There are seven examples of Islamic parties winning seats in Parliament elections:

Algeria 1992 – the FIS won the election and the military overthrew the results and a civil war ensued.

Jordan 1989 – The Muslim Brotherhood won thirty percent of the Parliamentary seats and despite being the Father of all Islamic organizations accepted various social welfare ministries with the government. They did not rebel even when Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994. They worked with the government in 1996 rioting.

Hizbollah – Has been in the Lebanese Parliament for more than a decade and has three members in the Cabinet. Hasan Nasrallah its leader has stated the Hamas will government will "burden them with larger political responsibilities. [and ] its behavior may be influenced". It happened to him.

Turkey 2002 - The AKP won a majority of the Parliamentary seats and continues to seek admission to the EU.

Morocco 2002 – The Islamic party PJD won 42 of 325 seats. When the Parliament voted for civil family law against Sharia law (which they opposed) they accepted the democratic law.

Egypt Dec. 2005 – The Muslim Brotherhood won 20% of the seats, the liberals 4%;  the governmental results are not yet known.

Iraq Dec. 2005 – The Shi’ite religious parties won a majority; the governmental results are not yet known.


Each case is different and no generalizations can be made from these experiences.


Hamas was able to win the elections due to American insisting on there being allowed to run. Instead of reforming Middle Eastern politics it may have created a quagmire and not progressive democracy. George Bush now has a freely elected government that he will not recognize.


The Quartet reiterates its view that there is a fundamental contradiction between armed group and militia activities and the building of a democratic State.  A two-State solution to the conflict requires all participants in the democratic process to renounce violence and terror, accept Israel's right to exist, and disarm, as outlined in the Road Map. The U.N. security stated the same on February 3. President Abbas suggested that he would only ask Hamas to form the government if the Islamic militant group renounces violence, recognize Israel and adhere to all previous agreements. At the same meeting in Cairo in front of President Husni Mubarak Omar Sulleiman Egypt’s Intelligence Chief stated "it is difficult to convince the leaders of Hamas to make an 180 degree change. They are extremists difficult to convince".


Natan Sharansky in a book recommended by George Bush ‘The Case for Democracy’ stated that elections were not the first step to democracy, a free society was. It is not clear how one attains a free society without elections. We are also long from knowing how Hamas, Israel and the West will react to an actual Hamas dominated government.