Between Acre and Gaza

An article in Issue 17, December 8, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. In the summer of 2007, Hamas Islamists seized control of the Gaza Strip; in October 2008, inter-communal riots between Jews and Arabs broke out in the mixed city of Acre, in the worst instance of such violence in Israel's history. Of course, there was no conspiracy between the leaders of Hamas in Gaza and the Arabs of Acre, and I certainly do not intend to suggest anything of the kind. The angry Arab rampage in Acre, spontaneous and surprising, was a reflection of deep-seated and longstanding grievances that the Arab minority in Israel has towards the State. These have no direct connection to Hamas's rise to a position of preeminence in Palestinian politics. Two ostensibly unrelated historical processes are at work here. But as they unfold, a critical overlap between them is being forged, and Israel's leaders would be wise to pay attention and think creatively about their response. The recent political victories of Hamas were not an accidental flash in the pan, and were not, as is often said, just a function of Fatah mismanagement and corruption. Rather the rise of Hamas is indicative of the historical decline of secular Palestinian nationalism and of the institutions that have represented it in the last half century - the PLO, Fatah and, after Oslo, the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and Gaza. The establishment of the PA and its elected institutions after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 was a historical turning point in the annals of the Arab-Israeli conflict. As opposed to the PLO, which represented all Palestinians everywhere, the PA represented only the people of the West Bank and Gaza. Oslo thus potentially signified the confinement of the Palestinian issue to the West Bank and Gaza and to the so-called 1967 questions, rolling back the Israeli occupation and redrawing the borders within the theoretical framework of a two-state solution. Hamas, however, rejects Oslo. For Hamas, the rising Palestinian power, the 1967 questions have never been the core of its historical grievance against Israel. It actively seeks to reverse the Oslo process and refocus the political spotlight on the Palestinian diaspora and refugee return as priorities that precede the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. For Hamas, the historical clock must be turned back to 1948, with the focus on reversing the results of Israel's War of Independence. The Palestinian Arab intelligentsia in Israel never liked Oslo either. After all, Oslo changed nothing for them, just as it changed little for the refugees in Gaza and in the diaspora. Moreover, ever since Oslo, the rejection of Israel as the state of the Jewish people has become more pronounced among the Arabs of Israel, and their call for the transformation of Israel into a "state of all its citizens" is merely a tactical ruse. Israel is the state of all its citizens and the slogan is a euphemism for the abolition of its Jewish character, and a return to the pre-1948 reality. And here, in this refusal to recognize the legitimacy of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, lies the common denominator between Acre and Gaza. Thus, Hamas ideology and the political trends among the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel are leading inexorably to the prioritizing of the 1948 agenda over that of 1967; that is, focusing on refugee return to and the plight of the Arab minority in Israel proper, rather than on the post-1967 occupation. It is imperative for Israel to seek a way out of this morass and reestablish the primacy of the 1967 issues and the two-state solution. This may require some hard new thinking, and coming to terms with a harsh reality in a way that ultimately protects Israel's long-term interests as the state of the Jewish people. The first point to recognize is that Hamas is a force to be reckoned with and will not just go away. Israel should therefore express its willingness to negotiate with any and all Palestinian players, including Hamas, to promote even interim agreements, thereby maintaining the peace and the potential for an eventual two-state solution. Hamas may very well refuse and prefer to continue the fight. Israel will then have to meet the militiamen on the battlefield, where it holds the whip hand. As for the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel, they will not just go away either. The best course for Israel would be to address their legitimate grievances and even consider recognizing them as a national minority, which is what they are, in exchange for their agreement that Israel is the state of the Jewish people. If they, too, prefer confrontation, Israel must be prepared. It should be clear, however, that whatever choices the Palestinians in Israel and elsewhere make, they will share responsibility for the consequences, for better or for worse.• Prof. Asher Susser is a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. An article in Issue 17, December 8, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.