(photo credit: AP)
In its first official statement since Hamas's electoral victory, the cabinet noted that the PA had agreed to disarming all Palestinian militias, but said it would do so after the elections. Thursday's statement continued: "We demand that the PA and its Chairman honor this commitment in the shortest time frame and both disarm Hamas and the other terrorist organizations and dismantle their other abilities to perpetrate acts of terrorism." The government stated further that "The State of Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian administration if its members include an armed terrorist organization that calls for the destruction of the State of Israel; in any case, Israel will continue to fight terrorism with a heavy hand, everywhere."
What the cabinet did not say was that a plan to release about NIS 200 million in customs receipts to the PA was expected to be implemented on schedule in February. These tax receipts, though collected by Israel, belong to the PA. At the same time, Israel did suspend such remittances during the height of the Palestinian terror attacks and held the funds in escrow.
Likud MK Silvan Shalom sharply criticized the government for releasing these funds to the PA, saying that it set the wrong precedent at a time when Israel, in the words of the cabinet statement, is demanding that "the entire international community compel the PA to implement the commitment to eliminate Hamas as a terrorist organization that calls for Israel's destruction."
Shalom's concern is more than fair: how can Israel expect the international community to cut off aid to the PA when Israel itself, when it comes to remitting tax receipts, seems to be conducting business as usual? This dilemma illuminates a dirty little secret: it is not just Europe, but also Israel and the US, which have been reluctant to pull the financial plug on the PA, even when the PA was presiding over a full-blown terror war. In retrospect, it is surprising how long Israel continued to dutifully deliver the PA's tax receipts after the attacks intensified in 2000, and how quickly the flow was restored - partly in response to US pressure - despite Israel's unchanged conclusion that the PA was not combating terrorism.
No one, it seems, wanted the PA to collapse. Israeli officials' visions of a humanitarian catastrophe that will end up on our doorstep continue. Those backing the decision argued that Mahmoud Abbas still heads the PA, and Hamas is not yet in the government, so that Israel can credibly take a wait and see approach. Finally, such advocates point out, Israel alone cannot cut off the PA, so the key goal should be to keep the international consensus on our side, rather than taking precipitous action that shift the spotlight.
Though such arguments cannot be dismissed, we believe the government made a mistake. Tough talk has emanated from some capitals, including from the Quartet: "A two-state solution to the conflict requires all participants to renounce violence and terror, accept Israel's right to exist, and disarm, as outlined in the road map." Despite this, it his hard to overestimate both the international reluctance to cut off aid "to the Palestinians" and the temptation to give even Hamas a chance to change its spots.
In this context Israel has, by deciding not to immediately suspend its infusion of remittances to the PA, sent the international community the wrong signal, a signal that could be interpreted as giving Hamas the benefit of the doubt.
It strains credulity to imagine that a Hamas-led PA will disarm militias and combat Palestinian terrorism more than a Fatah-led PA did. Even if that possibility exists, the question is, where does the burden of proof lie, and what pressures could conceivably bring such an unlikely scenario about? Here it is clear that the international community, including Israel and the US, must be willing to pull the financial plug on the PA. Moreover, the time to do so is now, or at the latest when a Hamas-led regime is formed that refuses to explicitly commit itself either to combating terrorism or to accepting Israel's right to exist. Such an entity should have no "trial period" in which the West continues to financially sustain a regime that is deeply complicit in terrorism.