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(photo credit: Associated Press)
With one-third of the Palestinians' Hamas-led government now under arrest by Israel, the escalation in Israeli-Palestinian relations has moved beyond military confrontation. A far more fundamental question has come into view: can a Palestinian government that draws its authority from an agreement with Israel stay in power when it is led by an organization committed to the destruction of Israel?
The abduction of an IDF soldier in the Gaza Strip, as well as the abduction and subsequent murder of an 18-year old Israeli civilian in the West Bank, have brought to the fore that question, which has haunted Israeli-Palestinian relations since Hamas won parliamentary elections in January.
The international community, led by the Quartet (the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia), has put three conditions to the Hamas government if it wishes to achieve international legitimacy and continue to be supported financially. Hamas must recognize Israel's right to exist, stop all terrorist activities, and commit itself to carry out all previous international agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority.
These appear to be reasonable conditions to any outside observer. To Hamas, however, they undermine its very raison d'etre.
After all, this is an organization committed to the destruction of Israel - its charter calls for a holy war against all Jews - and the establishment of an Islamic state in all of historical Palestine. Indeed, Article 22 of that charter reveals that Hamas views the Jews (together with the Freemasons and other nefarious organizations like Rotary International and the Lions Club), as responsible for the French and Bolshevik Revolutions, World War I, and World War II. So it is no great surprise that Hamas rejected the Quartet's conditions.
AT THE same time, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who represents Fatah, which lost the January elections, has tried in vain to find common ground with Hamas through an ambiguous text known as the Prisoners' Letter. This document was intended to serve as an implicit acceptance of Israel's right to exist. But nothing of the sort appears in the truncated text approved by Hamas. On the contrary, the text legitimizes continuing attacks against Israeli civilians in the West Bank, making it unacceptable to Israel - and to the international community.
But the current crisis cannot be solved by words alone. One of the paradoxical results of America's almost messianic belief in elections as a panacea for all the ills of the Middle East is that Hamas - the winner of democratic elections - has gained a degree of legitimacy that it never had before. On the other hand, Hamas's history and current behavior clearly indicate that it regards elections as merely a political tool, and that it is devoid of any commitment to the norms and values underlying democracy. Fascist and communist regimes of the past, which followed a similar instrumentalist approach to democracy, come to mind here. Yet, at the same time, the US supports Abu Mazen, trying to undermine the Hamas government, thus casting a shadow on the credibility of its own commitment to democracy.
The current violence may escalate further, and could bring down the Hamas government. On the other hand, diplomatic means may bring about the release of the Israeli soldier and put a stop to the firing of Kassam rockets from Gaza into Israel - which has challenged the credibility of the Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
But the fundamental problem is that, until now, at every historical juncture, the Palestinians refused to accept a compromise and consequently failed in nationbuilding. In 1947, they refused the UN partition plan, which called for the establishments of two states in British Palestine. In 1993, after the Oslo agreements, the Palestinian Authority established under Yasser Arafat became another militarized authoritarian regime, very much like Syria and Egypt, and did nothing to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian refugees. It was this failure that brought Hamas to power.
The current crisis is obviously the first serious test for Olmert and his plans for further withdrawal from Israeli-occupied territories. But it is an even greater test for the Palestinians: will they once again be led by a radical and fanatical leadership into another national catastrophe? Or will they finally realize that a future of independence, sovereignty, and dignity is open to them - but only if they grant the Israelis what they rightly claim for themselves? The international community can urge the Palestinians toward a decision. But that decision, and its moral costs, remains in the hands of the Palestinians alone.
The writer, a former Director-General of the foreign ministry, is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. www.project-syndicate.org
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