For the second time in less than two years, Hamas may be experiencing too much success for its own good. Hamas did well as an opposition group, maintaining the purity of its extreme positions while steering clear of political accountability. Hamas leaders were well aware of this and avoided taking part in government for a long time.
Their decision, therefore, to run for the Palestinian Authority elections last year and evolve into an institutionalized opposition party was not taken lightly. Then came the sweeping success which took it by surprise. Not only did Hamas become an official party, it found itself heading the government. This put Hamas in a paradoxical situation. On the one hand it remained faithful to its ideology and continued its refusal to abide by the terms to which Israel and the Quartet insisted: acknowledging Israel's right to exist, accepting the agreements the PLO signed with Israel, and renouncing terrorism. But, on the other hand, its sweeping electoral victory made it accountable in the eyes of its own people for whatever consequence this uncompromising stance would bring.
The solution to this conundrum was to form a coalition government with Fatah, in which Fatah stood for compromise, Hamas for extremism. Fatah was supposed to relieve international and Israeli pressure, and Hamas to somehow continue the Holy War. But what worked under Yassir Arafat, when Hamas was given much leeway as an underground organization, became more difficult to manage with Hamas heading a government. The result was a series of short-term, fragile ceasefires, which periodically broke down, along with a steady deterioration in the well-being of Gaza's citizens. The coalition government actually put Hamas and Fatah on a collision course. It was an unworkable partnership: Hamas didn't let Fatah deliver on its promises to Israel, and Fatah couldn't restrain Hamas's attacks. Policy--if that is the word for it--was not so much a compromise between the two as it was a random median of two mutually exclusive strategies. It was only a matter of time until clashes between the two factions turned into civil war.
That civil war has now given Hamas its second too-spectacular success. It did not simply subdue Fatah in Gaza, it annihilated it. But, as a result, Hamas is now being pushed into the position of full accountability. While Hamas bargained for nothing less than total military victory, it has found these political consequences uncomfortable, and it is now trying to resurrect Fatah's remains in Gaza. For the moment, however, Fatah is not cooperating. And why would it? What does it stand to gain from sharing responsibility for policies it cannot shape? As a result, the Arafat system--presenting a façade of cooperation while letting terrorists apply pressure--seems to be breaking down.
This presents an opportunity for Israel. Israel's policy toward Hamas has been, so far, short of wise. By boycotting Hamas while simultaneously dealing with its Fatah partner nonetheless, it actually helped the dual system survive. Now that that system has perished, however, Israel has a chance to corner Hamas into accountability.
Israel does not have to officially recognize Hamas as a legitimate government--not so long as it maintains its intention to destroy the Jewish state. But Israel can, and should, start dealing with Hamas on a pragmatic basis. The worst possible condition for Israel is chaos in Gaza. In a state of chaos, any radical group with a handful of Qassam rockets can hijack policy. There is then no one and nothing to deal with, no way to apply either carrots or sticks. But if the same hand that pulls the trigger is also the hand that feeds the people--the hand that's responsible for water, sewage, electricity, jobs, and medical care--then one can expect incentives and deterrents to be more effective.
Now, there may well be such a single hand. Now, Hamas will find it hard to pin responsibility on anybody else. Left alone in government, it will also have a vested interest in consolidating power. And, if it succeeds, Israel should be sensible enough to apply not only sticks, but carrots as well. With an effective government there would be a way to exact a price for hostilities and to reward pacification.
Israel cannot, and should not, support Hamas directly. But it should also avoid active attempts to topple it. A stable enemy government is far better than a bunch of feuding warlords competing for the dubious title of staunchest enemy of Zionism. Accountability was, and is, the key to reducing violence.
By Gadi Taub