OP-EDS

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February 21, 2006

Israel cannot afford to alienate Hamas

Ehud Olmert, Israel’s acting prime minister, has announced that Israel will withhold the taxes it collects for the Palestinian Authority in response to Hamas’s ascension to power. This is just the latest in a long line of poorly considered decisions concerning Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. Given the continued support for Ariel Sharon’s Kadima party, which supports unilateral disengagement and ultimately a two-state solution on Israel’s terms, this latest announcement should not be nearly as surprising as Hamas’s landslide victory in the most recent Palestinian elections.

There is an argument to be made that the widespread surprise over the ascension of Hamas into power was due more to a lack of vision than a lack of information. Khaled Abu Toameh, Palestinian affairs correspondent for The Jerusalem Post who spoke at the University earlier this month, wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal predicting a Hamas victory. Toameh’s prediction was met with skepticism, but it turned out to be prescient. Perhaps many did not expect the overwhelming majority that propelled the murderous Hamas into power, but victory was more than a possibility for several annoyingly mundane reasons.

It’s worth noting that referring to Hamas as a murderous horde is not hyperbole. The atrocities committed by Hamas are horrifying and well documented. However, it did not get elected by promising to increase terrorism and destroy Israel. Hamas capitalized on the deep discontent with Fatah, Palestine’s previous ruling party. After years of corruption, bad governance, and the theft of vast sums of money intended for investment in infrastructure, Palestinians did not want to finance the lifestyles of the Fatah power elite.

Israel’s strategy, it seems, is to strangle the Hamas government by cutting off funding until new elections are forced. The U.S. State Department is not currently commenting, but last week it was reported that America was considering a similar strategy of forcing new elections in the hopes that Hamas would be thrown out of office. If any government, or coalition of governments, pursues this policy to “success,” then the situation will become vastly worse than it is today. Influencing Palestinian politics in such a way that a democratically elected Hamas government falls from power is a very different proposition from removing a strongman who has taken power.

The power that Hamas currently wields, as any high school civics student knows, is derived from the people who elected it to power. Hamas was elected because of legitimate complaints with Fatah’s leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas, as evidenced by softened rhetoric from its public officials and the nomination of the moderate Ismail Haniyeh as the new prime minister, is well aware that it did not win the election because Palestinians love terror. For now, Israel and the West have a choice. They can give Hamas a chance with the democratic power that they have so much faith in, not least because democracy forces accountability (as Fatah recently discovered). Or, they can push Hamas back into its comfort zone, as a murderous terrorist group.