(photo credit: AP)
Although Hamas was voted into power at the end of January, Israel has been slow to formulate a comprehensive set of policies for dealing with the new regime. With Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition beginning to take shape this week, it was encouraging to see the government take on the task.
The results, announced on Sunday, include the recommendation that Israel use the customs and tax revenues which it is withholding from the Palestinian Authority to pay PA utility bills - already hundreds of millions of shekels in arrears - to the likes of the Israel Electric Corporation, an approach which this newspaper recommended. Olmert's policy panel also proposed that Israeli representatives not meet with diplomats who insist on meeting Hamas officials and that the government not have any contact with the PA. The cabinet is set to consider these proposals next week.
Similarly, the international community has begun to treat the Hamas government as a pariah. The US, EU and Canada have all halted direct financial assistance to the PA unless Hamas recognizes Israel's right to exist, renounces violence and honors existing agreements between Israel and the PA.
While it was high time that Israel further specify how it would deal with the Hamas government, these recommendations raise some important questions.
What exactly does "no contact" between the government and the PA mean? If there was another outbreak of avian flu, would Israeli officials be allowed to work with PA government representatives, as they did in February, to coordinate their response? The policy committee should clarify just how flexible the outlawing of inter-governmental contact should be.
A question with even greater ramifications is what strategic goal is the government pursuing. While the international community, as noted above, has clearly stated its aims in withholding funds from the PA - and Israel has officially backed these intentions - it is possible to piece together a different picture of Israeli strategy, one which aspires not to a change in Hamas's policies but to a change of regime.
Olmert, in an interview published Sunday in Time magazine, said he was not optimistic about giving up a unilateral strategy for negotiations with the PA. He said that for negotiations to be opened with Hamas, "they need to change their entire way of life, they need to change entirely their state of mind about Israel's existence. It's so much deeper than rhetoric." In other words, Olmert isn't fooling himself about the likelihood that his policies will cause Hamas to change its stripes.
Olmert also expressed admiration for US President George W. Bush's policy of regime change in Iraq, saying Bush would emerge as "the person who had more courage to change the Middle East than any person before him. I know the war in Iraq is controversial in the States, but for us in the Middle East it has made a great and significant impact."
In addition, Olmert's policy panel characterized the PA as a "hostile regime," and said that the government should work to prevent the "administrative establishment of the Hamas government."
These pointed remarks are all the more significant in the light of a statement by a high-ranking member of the IDF General Staff on Sunday. "This is a war," he said of recent IDF operations - a full-fledged war, he added, being waged by Israel against Palestinian terrorism.
Olmert's perception of Hamas's intransigence, his evident regard for Bush's Iraqi regime change, the policy of diplomatic isolation and financial deprivation aimed at preventing Hamas from establishing its government, and military escalation against a "hostile regime" could be seen as indicating the government wants more than a new Hamas platform.
Regime change within the PA may not happen soon, or even at all. But if this is the government's goal - or if the diplomatic pressures on Hamas anyway cause its downfall - further questions are warranted. How would Israel respond if, after the collapse of the Hamas government, there were greater anarchy than exists now? Is the military preparing for such a contingency, especially given a Hamas unconstrained by holding office and bent on revenge? Would the "convergence" plan have to be altered or postponed and under what circumstances? Would PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas fill the power vacuum? Would Israel support him?
While the government is playing catch-up in forming its policies on Hamas, it would be prudent, and a refreshing change, if it adopted a long-range view of the possible implications of its decisions.