Saturday, June 16, 2007


I was happy to see this recent op-ed by Martin Indyk about the recent fall of Gaza to Hamas militants, because it showed me that I am not the only person to see some potential long-term benefits to Hamas's new position. It's nice not to feel crazy, after all.

Let me be clear that I do not view the Hamas coup as positive in the expansive sense of the word. Certainly for the people of Gaza, who will now be subject to even further economic and political isolation, not to mention government by a group of fanatics, the recent fighting has not yielded very encouraging results. In the larger scheme of things, however, the fact that Hamas now controls Gaza while being - for now anyway - pushed out of power in the West Bank solves one of the principal dilemmas created by last year's elections, in that there now exists a Palestinian entity with whom Israel and the quartet can negotiate. Hamas's victory at the polls made it impossible for outside forces to have any substantive discussions with Palestinian representatives without including a group that manifestly could not be dealt with. Any hope of a settlement was frozen by the balance of power within Palestine. Now, with Hamas in control of Gaza, but also largely confined to Gaza, the Palestinian government in the West Bank should be able to negotiate Israel without having to perform diplomatic gymnastics simply to sit down at the table.

The recent declaration by the United States that sanctions would be immediately dropped on any Palestinian government that does not include Hamas, combined with the Israeli pledge to begin releasing customs revenues that it has been holding for more than a year, should provide a boost to the Abbas government, and could set the stage for new rounds of negotiations. The entry of Barak into the Israeli government as the head of Labor in the governing coalition could also inject legitimacy that Olmert's government has lacked since last summer's disaster in Lebanon.

Extracting positive results from this foundation, though, will take courage and delicacy on everyone's part, especially that of Israel. Regardless of who is in charge in the Gaza strip, Palestinians rightly view it as their territory, and those living there as their countrymen. Israel would be naive to think it can productively negotiate with Fatah in the West Bank while inflicting misery on the Hamas-controlled citizens of Gaza. That said, Hamas has the power to derail a re-started peace process if given too free a hand to launch attacks against Fatah or Israel or both. Israeli policy, and the policy of those nations and institutions that try to play mediating roles, will have to be tailored not only to inflict harm on Hamas, but to show the Palestinian populace that this time, finally, really, after all these years, they have something to gain by supporting a government that is willing to negotiate.

First steps have been encouraging, but more need to be taken. One of the main lessons of the failed Oslo negotiations during the 1990s was that interim 'confidence building measures' are of supreme importance. Successive Israeli governments tried to press the Palestinians to work out one, large-scale, grand bargain type deal all at once, because then they would have something to show the Israeli people to counter the images of settlers being dragged from their homes. The problem was that, absent many of those steps being taken in the interim, before final issues were settled, few in Palestine had any confidence that the Israelis were truly prepared to give them a viable state. Therefore, I propose that the Israeli government begin aggressively dismantling all West Bank settlements that it has not itself authorized. There are many such illegal (under Israeli law) outposts, and they infuriate the Palestinian rank and file. Such action would show the people of the West Bank that Israel is serious about talking again, now that it has a real partner, and it would show the people of Gaza that their current rulers will get them nowhere.

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