Israel's campaign to bar Hamas from competing in the forthcoming Palestinian elections is failing in the international arena in general and in Washington in particular. It is also fundamentally misconceived and potentially self-defeating. Instead of meddling in domestic Palestinian politics and possibly dangerously skewing the results, Israel has a vested interest in assuring a free and inclusive plebiscite. This means accepting, however reluctantly, Hamas participation.
Hamas is indisputably Israel's prime Palestinian foe. Its homegrown version of Islamic extremism preaches the total destruction of the State of Israel and glorifies unbridled terrorism as an acceptable means to achieve this end. During the past five years, its message gained currency among an increasingly economically impoverished, politically frustrated, and personally humiliated population bereft of hope and hence of a future. The corruption and ineptness of the Palestinian Authority undoubtedly contributed to this process. Today, Hamas constitutes the most serious threat not only to Israel but also to mainstream Palestinian nationalism.
Israel's current policy toward Hamas is, however, shortsighted and thoroughly counterproductive.
It is a truism to state that the ultimate objective of all Israeli governments - to gain recognition of Israel's legitimate right to exist and to ensure the security of all its citizens - cannot be achieved by military means alone. The key to Israel's survival, even its greatest skeptics now admit, is accommodation with a credible and authoritative Palestinian leadership backed by the majority of the residents of the West Bank and Gaza. The PLO, unquestionably severely challenged by Hamas, nevertheless continues to fulfill this role. Unfortunately, the Sharon government is constantly undermining its already limited legitimacy, and consequently fueling its militant opponents.
THE ELECTION of Mahmoud Abbas on an avowedly non-violent platform barely nine months ago opened the possibility for the termination of the pointless pattern of violence and counterviolence that has yielded nothing but misery for too long. Israel, the salubrious disengagement from Gaza notwithstanding, has done precious little to capitalize on this opportunity. The dominant unilateral myth encourages an extreme form of self-reliance which, by obviating consideration of Palestinian concerns, might actually work to Israel's own detriment. Instead of applauding Abu Mazen's substantial efforts to halt violence, it has questioned his motives. Instead of supporting his attempts to reach an understanding with the armed militias, it has usurped his authority. And instead of responding to his repeated calls for unconditional negotiations, it has increased its demands for a complete dismantling of all terrorist cells as a precondition for the resumption of talks.
Ironically, these steps have served to fortify Hamas at the expense of the already beleaguered moderate Palestinian leadership. Sharon's insistence on the exclusion of Hamas, which has already competed successfully in the local elections, is even more perplexing. The experience of Northern Ireland and South Africa, based on the purposeful incorporation of all factions capable of obstructing an agreement, has been lost on Israeli policymakers. So, too, has the sequence of events elsewhere: while Israel continues to press for the full disarmament of Hamas as a prerequisite for participation in the elections, it ignores the fact that in other conflict-ridden areas an open ballot has preceded decommissioning. Moreover, by systematically eliminating Hamas militants (thereby ensuring their martyrdom) and hounding its political leaders, it may have actually strengthened their standing as a seemingly unwavering alternative voice against Israeli occupation.
Most Israelis and Palestinians share a deep distaste for Hamas and what it represents. They also have a common interest in preventing its growth. The crude targeting of Hamas militants without weakening their organization has proven ineffective. If Israel is really serious about confronting Hamas, it should study Abu Mazen's moves carefully and reinforce his preference for inclusion (surely he has the most to lose from a Hamas victory at the polls). It must also design a far more sophisticated and differentiated approach to deal with the extremist danger.
Such a strategy should include three main ingredients. First, Israel must stop threatening to derail the electoral process in Palestine. Besides appearing to be anti-democratic (something Israel can ill afford today), such a policy gives Hamas precisely the kind of attention, and consequently spoiler power, it so eagerly seeks. Second, Israel must do everything possible to facilitate communication and enable that mobility so essential for free and fair elections (the current limitations on movement are foolhardy in this context).
Third, and most significantly, if the best way to subdue Hamas is to marginalize its appeal and force it to change its policy, then Israel should embark on negotiations with Abu Mazen now. The historical record in this regard is irrefutable: elections without the promise of conflict resolution only buttress extremism. The hope for a just end to decades of hostilities cannot but empower Palestinian moderates and grant them much-needed popular support.
Israel can promote its own interests and serve those of Palestinians committed to a two-state solution by enabling open, truly competitive Palestinian elections. Rescinding opposition to Hamas participation is a first step in the removal of the threat posed by Islamic extremism.