Last Monday, Hamas broadcast a video in which kidnapped corporal Gilad Shalit appealed to Israel to redouble its efforts to secure his release. The reaction was instant. Media-wise it eclipsed within hours the four-way summit convening in Egypt and Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, King Abdullah of Jordan, and the host, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, tried in vain to proceed with their agenda as if the Hamas stunt hardly concerned them. They decided to line up behind the Palestinian Authority and to launch a new phase in peace-making based on two parallel and complementary efforts--to solidify the authority of Abbas and provide his government with copious financial support and instant American-devised training for newly organized security forces, and to exhort all and sundry to confront and defeat Hamas. Should Abbas act decisively against terrorism in the West Bank, Israel would quickly remove many of its road blocks and negotiate in earnest with Abbas on "substance"(without it being clear what indeed Olmert and Abbas can really negotiate in present circumstances). Of course neither Israel nor the Ramallah-based half of the Palestinian Authority would give any quarter to Hamas, either inside the West Bank or in Gaza.
The video was quickly perceived in Israel as indicating that Hamas was in "dire straits," as it surely is. A year had gone by, and Hamas, like Hezbollah in the north, had refused to give any indication to the Israeli public at large concerning the fate of their kidnapped prisoner. Now, all of a sudden, an entire nation was stunned, then elated, listening to the identified voice of the missing soldier. Condemned for the savage and beastly behavior of their men during the Gaza takeover, isolated regionally and internationally, saddled with the entire responsibility for the daily lives of close to a million and a half of mostly destitute Palestinians, they had their backs to the wall. It was a perfect public relations' stunt instantly successful. However, it was short lived. In the words of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni a couple of days ago, now was the time to surge forward "hard and fast" against Hamas. Indeed the last ten days have been a dismal period in the history of the de-legitimized Hamas government of deposed Ismail Haniyeh. Hamas appealed to Israel to open the frontier crossings between Israel and the Strip. They even offered to submit a list of men who would handle the Palestinian side and allow Israel to veto anyone not acceptable. They were answered with a blunt refusal. Since the summit, Israel has been demonstrating that it knows how to turn recent events to its advantage and simultaneously has registered direct and significant success in eliminating key figures involved in primitive missile construction.
So Hamas is indeed in dire straits. But, unfortunately, it is not the only party to be experiencing a tough predicament. Whereas Mubarak initially condemned the Hamas takeover, naming it a military coup directed against Abbas, he clearly changed his tune a day after the summit and said he would be sending back his military mission to Gaza the moment things cooled down. He even hinted that there might still be room for reconciliation between the rival Palestinian factions. Similar sentiments were echoed by Qatar (the Arab states' representative on the U.N. Security Council), Russia, and others.
The Ramallah government of Salam Fayyad is apparently also in dire straits. In recent days one commander after another has been dismissed for incompetence in the recent Gaza debacle. There have been arrests in the West Bank of Hamas operatives by government forces, but all know that, were it not for Israel's almost daily incursions, security cannot be maintained. Israel wishes to move "hard and fast," as Livni said, in tandem with Abbas; but what timetable can Abbas offer for establishing complete and effective control of the West Bank? When and how can he restore authority in Gaza? Can he negotiate a political settlement with Israel ignoring Gaza? How many real divisions does he have here and now? How many will he have in six months' time? And if, as he said this weekend, he will hold new general elections isolating and banning Hamas from participation, what credibility will the results have in the eyes of the public? Can he hold credible elections in the West Bank alone if, as is clear, he cannot restore any vestige of his authority in the Gaza Strip. His call this weekend, in Paris, for the dispatch of an international force to take over control of Gaza and to facilitate the participation of the Gazans in the planned elections is testimony to the world of fantasy in which he is now functioning. Nobody will send troops into Gaza to uproot Hamas, and Abbas must surely know this because his French hosts made this clear to him.
Further afield, the United States is similarly in dire straits. Eighteen months ago the democratic path enforced by the United States and implemented by the Palestinian Authority produced a Hamas majority which was contrary to American principles and interests. Subsequently, an American plan to create a viable Fatah force in the Gaza Strip to crush Hamas backfired, and now the United States has decided to repeat the exercise in the West Bank, where the chances for success seemingly appear brighter. Does the United States believe that it can overturn both the election results that gave Hamas a parliamentary majority and the Hamas military takeover of the Strip?
The Bush administration has only less than 18 months left to accomplish this mission, and nobody really can assess if this is doable. Needless to say, the United States has no plan for Gaza; neither does Israel. In any event the United States must move hard and fast under acute timetable constraints. Israel does not have all the time in the world either. Whereas, at the moment, it has the upper hand in the struggle against Hamas, the challenge to bring Shalit home is a real one. If the release is secured, everybody knows that there will be a price tag of prisoners released to the Hamas; it will be very far from Hamas's original demands, which listed all the major terrorist Hamas leaders currently in Israeli jails. But the 400-odd released Hamas operatives will nevertheless serve as concrete evidence that Hamas is a player on the scene.
In the best of scenarios as envisaged in Jerusalem, Washington, and Ramallah, further deterioration of political conditions in the Strip may lead to the disappearance of the last vestiges of any Hamas central authority. But this would not bring Fatah back to Gaza; rather lawlessness could deteriorate into chaos and this would be worse than a centralized Hamas administration. In either circumstance it is doubtful that Abbas will be in any position to negotiate anything at all with Israel. Will the West Bankers go ahead and make a separate deal? What real value will it have? Can Abbas sell a solution to the Palestinian issue crafted on the support of American and Israeli bayonets? I doubt it. This is hardly a viable strategy to promote.
Therefore, in the likely event that the joint Israeli-American plan worked out in Egypt to support Abbas and isolate Hamas fails, it will be necessary to move to Plan B. This plan is predicated first and foremost on accepting realities on the ground and turning them to the best possible advantage. Hamas has demonstrated that when in distress, it is pliable to practical arrangements on the ground. Therefore, parallel to maintaining pressure on Hamas on a daily basis, isolating it regionally and internationally, contacts should be established with Hamas to see if a long-term armistice with it can be obtained. It must be a tough eyeball-to-eyeball exercise in which Hamas is brought to a point where its self-interest dictates such an understanding. An armistice will entail provisions for maintaining security, ending arms smuggling into the Strip, et cetera. Until this is achieved, constant military pressure must be maintained. In scope, this could resemble the original armistice agreements negotiated and agreed to by Israel and the Arab states after the War of Independence in 1948-1949. At that time, too, the Arab states refused to recognize Israel--just as does Hamas today--but they nevertheless signed binding agreements with it. Armistice would not be a political determination of the conflict but a down-to-earth method of reducing tensions--a goal most essential, inter alia to American interests in the Middle East at large.
Parallel to this, identical agreements should be negotiated with Fatah in the West Bank. Fatah cannot pretend to represent Gaza, and it would be hard put to acquiesce in accepting Hamas, again as a limited player. Yet, should it refuse to do so, Fatah might face a West Bank implosion. This it cannot afford. Inter-Arab support for this construction must be sought. Both Fatah and Hamas must commit themselves to this arrangement at the highest Arab state level. It must ultimately be consecrated at the U.N. Security Council with strong U.S. support. An important byproduct of such a step would be the precedent of getting a non-state entity to assume international obligations in the context of new requirements that are emerging in the key area of combating international Islamic terrorism. The more we can wean away territorial-based entities like Hamas from their ties and commitments to terrorism, the more we shall improve our chances of winning the war against this strategic threat to the western way of life. It is a long and tortuous haul requiring infinite patience, determination, and creativity. In order to triumph , we will all need a few devils on board . The United States has excelled in such exercises in the last quarter of a century. Supporting Saddam Hussein against Iran just 20 years ago and aiding and arming the Islamic fighters who chased the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan are just two recent cases in point.
We need a vision both in the region and without. In order to encourage the Arab world to accept and promote these ideas, it would be wise to initiate a non-binding dialogue between Israel and the Arab states on fundamental permanent-status issues. These could serve as a beacon for hope for the Palestinians and as an incentive to try and put their house in order. U.S. support for this approach is essential and would serve its interest in the broader context of its current Middle East necessities. Should current policy in Washington and Jerusalem and Ramallah flounder, Plan B should be on the table for consideration six months from now.
By Efraim Halevy