Israel is in the midst of its third military operation against Hamas in six years. It is doubtful that this round will produce better results than previous ones. After each round, Hamas gained political clout in Palestine and acquired more sophisticated weapons.
It is in Israel’s interest to see a weakened Hamas. With force, one may tactically and temporarily weaken the terror organization, but with time, it seems, in the eyes of many that only the Arab side is gaining something – a massive prisoner release and the intimidation of virtually all of our population.
Terror organizations do not thrive on their weapons, but on the popular support they are able to recruit.
The Palestinian strategic predicament is how to convince Israel to agree to an independent state along the 1967 lines with east Jerusalem as its capital. Even the radicals know that to expect more is out of the question. There are two ways to achieve this aim, in their view, represented by two conflicting parties in Palestine: Fatah and Hamas.
Fatah transformed during the ’90s from a radical terror group to a political movement based on pragmatic and secular views. Its leadership advocates negotiation with Israel and the international community as a means to bring Palestinians closer to their national aspirations.
On the other hand, Hamas, which is religiously fundamentalist and politically fanatic, believes that only an armed struggle will, with time, weaken Israel to a point of surrendering its national positions.
Their ideological appetite is megalomaniacal, driven by a racist vision of a state on all the land.
The real and immediate aim of each of these two parties is to destroy the other politically. The Palestinian people will ultimately have to choose who serves their interests better. So far, both sides have delivered very little hope.
Israel has a choice to make for its own interests: either strengthen Fatah through a diplomatic agreement, or try to weaken Hamas through war. By not going along sufficiently with John Kerry’s peace initiative, the process of peace was replaced by a process of war. Yet war by the Israeli military giant, as the Palestinians see us, will not weaken Hamas with the Palestinian public.
Instead it is in our interest to reach an agreement with Fatah that will weaken Hamas. It is an illusion to believe that by destroying missiles and tunnels, we can destroy Hamas.
Hamas before the current IDF operation was at its weakest point.
This division between fundamentalists and pragmatists typifies much of the Arab world today – in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, the Maghreb and the Gulf.
In certain ways the same schism exists within the Israeli political system. The pragmatist forces are on the Center-Left and, to some degree, within the Likud. They are the ones who advocate realistically a two-state solution in favor of our identity and security, negotiated with the Fatah leadership of the Palestinian Authority. The fundamentalist forces in Israel are mainly the settlers and their ideological supporters in the right-wing parties.
They are driven by a messianic view of religious rights, laws and superiority over others. They do not, however, advocate the use of violence against civilians. Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett is their most powerful and dogmatic representative. They have kidnapped the current government by infiltrating the rank-and-file of the Likud. They sabotaged the Kerry initiative by ensuring the creation of 14,000 housing units in the West Bank during the peace talks. This has dramatically weakened Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, and therefore strengthened Hamas, as we witness from its self-confidence.
When fundamentalists meet fundamentalists, the outcome is ultimately irrational and violent. The fundamentalists on both sides gain from dedicated demagogic propaganda machines.
Hamas convinces Palestinians that Israel is an outpost of the infidel West, a society out to rob all of the land east of the Sea and to kill Palestinians. Hamas’s incitement affects the minds of many, especially in Gaza, which is under its dictatorial control. Religious propaganda is used as opium for the people while Hamas is destroying the Gazan economy by investing every petrodollar it gets from Qatar on expensive armaments.
The settlers are also master propagandists.
They skillfully exploit the weakness of the Palestinian side to convince Israelis that there is no viable peace partner and that only force works, employing demagogic, racist undertones. Bennett is better than any marketing conglomerate.
They are also economically draining the national treasury in favor of expensive settlement construction.
Both Israel and Palestine must make historic choices regarding identity and policies: pragmatism or fundamentalism.
As to Palestine, it must choose statehood in peace and security with Israel, or perpetual war and destruction; a secular democracy, or a totalitarian theocracy; a growing peace economy in relations with the West, or a destroyed war economy financed by Qatar.
I was involved in the negotiations that led to the transformation of Fatah from a terror organization into a political party engaged in nation-building. Hamas is not about to engage in a similar change in the foreseeable future. It is part of the Muslim Brotherhood and blinded by religious hatred. The Palestinians must opt for pragmatism and engage in peace negotiations with Israel and the United States. The unity government between Fatah and Hamas is mixing oil and water and will lead nowhere. After this cycle of violence, started by Hamas, it should be dissolved.
Israel is the stronger party in the conflict, and its choice is of a critical nature. We must choose between a political compromise for peace and security with the Fatahled PA, which will strengthen its posture also in Gaza, or perpetual rounds of violence with Hamas, which will strengthen Hamas also in the West Bank.
The choice is of more profound nature: Do we want to be a moral, Jewish democracy, or become a binational apartheid state with religious fundamentalists from both sides fighting each other? This choice forces us to reach deep into the soul of Israel. We will find there much patriotic dedication, but also an empathetic ability to understand the plight of others and the necessary pragmatism to achieve this goal, mixed with a strong sense of anxiety inherited by traumatic historical experiences. In this soul-searching, we must focus on the future of our children more than on the tragedies of our parents.
The right choice is clear: a two state-solution, with Palestine under Fatah rule, along the 1967 lines, with a shared capital in Jerusalem, realistic security arrangements and no right of return. That would mean the end of Hamas power. To move in this direction, the government must divorce its own fundamentalists – the settler party, Bayit Yehudi – who did and will continue to sabotage such peace strategy from within the government. Binyamin Netanyahu should establish a unity government with Labor.
These strategic choices for both sides – between pragmatism and fundamentalism – must guide the policies to end the current war, and its immediate aftermath. Therefore the agreement to end the war must be more than a cease-fire, it must begin to bring strategic considerations into play. The cease-fire agreement should be for five years.
In this period, Gaza will have to be economically rebuilt and developed as well as demilitarized of rockets.
Abbas and Fatah must be part of the deal, and peace negotiations with them should be relaunched under American guidance.
The parties need mediators and facilitators in order to implement such arrangements. On the security side, a force of the Arab League, with the possible backing of NATO, should ensure that the gradual demilitarization of Gazan from rockets over a one-year period.
In return, the European Union should actively engage in the economic development of Gaza. With demilitarization, the siege of Gaza should be gradually lifted, starting with the immediate opening of the Rafah crossing to Sinai. Young Gazans should take part in entrepreneurial training, rather than the detrimental brainwashing of Hamas. The EU should facilitate trade, thereby overcoming the security predicaments. The Palestinian partner in Gaza should be of a non-political nature, such as an investment and trade company.
To realize this, significant resources will have to be invested.
Simultaneously, the United States should relaunch the peace talks between Israel and the PA with the backing of the Arab League. For this purpose, Abbas must divorce Hamas and Netanyahu the settlers (a settlement freeze is necessary).
Once the guns are silenced, tactical solutions will not suffice – strategic choices will have to be made in favor of long-term policy pragmatism and against dangerous religious fundamentalism.
There is no perfect implementation of such strategies – peace and security have too many enemies in this region. But they need to lead to a new, pragmatic coalition.
It is the two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, that are at stake – their identity, their freedoms and their well-being. The majority of Israelis and Palestinians are pragmatic, not fundamentalist.
Last week I met a Palestinian friend of mine who brought his 15-yearold son to our meeting. I asked this kid from Ramallah: “Who are you for, Fatah or Hamas?” He replied: “I am more for Barca [the Barcelona soccer club].” Similar answers would come from Israeli kids. Tired of the politics of fundamentalism, war and violence, they want the chance to just be kids. The choices to be made are for their sake.
The writer is honorary president of the Peres Center for Peace and founder of the YaLa Young Leaders peace movement, and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.
Barbara Hurwitz edited this column.