World Cup blogging continues here — but there’s more to life than football, Barry, so read this too!
Even before the Palestinians committed the cardinal sin of electing Hamas to govern them, Israel had no intention of negotiating with Mahmoud Abbas. Instead, Ariel Sharon was pursuing his strategy of unilaterally redrawing Israel’s boundaries, on the grounds that “there is no Palestinian negotiating partner.” Which is true, of course, if you finish the sentence: It’s not that there is no Palestinian leadership willing to negotiate (even Hamas appears to be moving in that direction by endorsing the two-state premise of the “Prisoner’s Document”); it’s that there is no Palestinian negotiating partner willing to accept Sharon’s (and now Olmert’s) terms. Those terms, of course, are neither fair, just nor based on international law. Not that fairness and justice for the Palestinians, or international law, are concerns of the Bush administration, which is why Israel has managed to get away with actions that would have been stopped by any U.S. administration with a grownup perspective on the Middle East. Israeli commentators have no trouble recognizing that Israel’s actions in Gaza are those of a rogue regime: “It is not legitimate to cut off 750,000 people from electricity,” writes Gideon Levy in Haaretz. “It is not legitimate to call on 20,000 people to run from their homes and turn their towns into ghost towns. It is not legitimate to penetrate Syria’s airspace. It is not legitimate to kidnap half a government and a quarter of a parliament. A state that takes such steps is no longer distinguishable from a terror organization. The harsher the steps, the more monstrous and stupid they become, the more the moral underpinnings for them are removed and the stronger the impression that the Israeli government has lost its nerve.” (Only in Israel, by the way, will you hear such a refreshingly blunt assessment – nobody would dare write that in the U.S. media)
The moral outrage is welcome, but so is the analytical observation about the strategic grasp of the Olmert government. Once the Palestinians used the power of democracy to rid themselves of the venal corrupt and self-serving Fatah government and put Hamas in power, the new Israeli government demonstrated just how badly the departure of Sharon has affected their ability to wage political war. From the outset, their response to the Hamas election victory was skittish, and self defeating: They at once claimed vindication for their “no partner” position that supposedly gave them the right to proceed unilaterally, but at the same time set about trying to overthrow the Hamas government through financial strangulation. Any sober head (and Sharon certainly had a sober head) could have gamed out the contradiction in this position. Hamas in power would have maintained the “cover” that would allow (in Western eyes) Israel to proceed with unilateral plans, while leaving a coherent if hostile authority on the other side of the wall. Instead, Olmert appears to have been spooked by Hamas’s triumph, along with the naïve ideologues of the Bush administration, opted for the rash strategy of toppling it – based on the hopelessly wishful idea that if squeezed hard enough, the Palestinian electorate would turn their backs on Hamas and restore the corrupt and discredited Fatah regime. The drive to oust Hamas has been escalated to military action since members of the military wing of Hamas, aligned with its more radical exile faction, snatched an Israeli soldier in Gaza and held him captive. The Hamas militants, of course, are looking precisely to sabotage the movement towards some form of coexistence with Israel by the parliamentary leadership of Hamas. But the Israelis appear to have been responding either in blind rage, or else on the basis of sharing the objective of eliminating the “threat” of a new Palestinian negotiating consensus (which, after all, is based on terms unacceptable to Israel).
Israel’s strategy may still fail: The effect of Israel’s invasion may be to restore some semblance of national unity and common purpose among the Palestinian factions that had been shooting at each other for weeks previously. When the Israeli surge turned to bombardment and armored attacks, the rival Palestinian formations will certainly have been reminded of that which unites them, and why they have traditionally avoided expressing their rivalry in zero-sum terms. But if it succeeds, Olmert’s unilateral strategy is dead. Already, Israelis have turned against the idea of turning over any part of the West Bank to a polity similar to that in Gaza. The Palestinian electorate is more likely than ever now to stick with Hamas, but the political balance within Hamas may swing back towards the militants. And if Israel succeeds in preventing Hamas from governing, the result is more likely to be a setup not unlike Mogadishu. Either way, Israel will now find itself, given its own terms, unable to “disengage” from either Gaza or the West Bank. Spooked by the rise of Hamas and the provocations of its militants, Olmert has effectively collapsed the fiction of “disengagement” and affirmed the reality that Gaza and the West Bank remain occupied by Israel – and will remain so until Israel is able to conclude a political agreement with the chosen leadership of the Palestinians.