Will the Dike Hold Against Hamas?

The reaction to the Hamas victory in the Palestinian Authority elections ranges from depression on the left, over the end to the fantasy of having a negotiating partner, to hysteria on the right, from the conviction that the doomsday scenario of a terrorist base on Israel’s border has come true. The immediate response of everyone has been to work toward isolating Hamas, a strategy that is almost certainly doomed to fail.

Some people have interpreted the election results as a great defeat for the Bush Administration’s goal of encouraging the spread of democracy. This is poppycock. As Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.” Yes, the outcome is not what we would have preferred, but what is the alternative policy, to forswear democracy and freedom and campaign for autocracy?

While democratic outcomes are preferable to the alternatives, the rest of the world is not obligated to have a relationship with elected leaders whose policies and views are dangerous. Adolf Hitler was elected by the German people, but few people would suggest today that the rest of the world should have ignored his genocidal views and treated him as an equal just because he emerged from a democratic process.

As the Wall Street Journal editorialized, “Palestinians need to understand that the exercise of self-government carries consequences. For too long, the international community has failed to extract a price for the Palestinian recourse to terror. That failure has not brought peace, but far worse it has produced the ‘Palestine’ we have now: destitute, savage against both Israelis and moderate Arabs, and, so far, incapable of managing its internal affairs peacefully and competently. By refusing to render Hamas respectable, the U.S. and Israel aren't punishing the Palestinians. They’re educating them.”

The statements reiterating their commitment to Israel’s destruction have given little reason for optimism, but let’s consider for a moment the possibility that a Hamas government will shift in a positive direction. Israel and the United States have given Hamas the same basic offer that was given to the PLO: “Say these magic words – we recognize Israel’s right to exist and renounce terror – and we will recognize and negotiate with you.” It took about 30 years before Arafat said the magic words, but ever since he did, the PLO has been accepted as a legitimate interlocutor, even though its deeds never matched those magic words.

It is conceivable that Hamas will also say the magic words to win international approval. From the PLO precedent we know that no one will have the wherewithal to require that their actions match their words. Nevertheless, once the words have been said, negotiations will undoubtedly resume. This will not lead to an agreement since Hamas will never accept any deal that would provide Israel with peace and security.

Hamas may also rein in the violence, not because its policy toward Israel has changed, but because it is necessary to improve the lives of the Palestinians. The only way Palestinian welfare will improve is if the Israelis are given no reason to unduly interfere in their lives. If violence continues, Israel will have to maintain curfews, checkpoints and military operations, and the Palestinians will see that their lives are no better under Hamas than Fatah.

Incidentally, many Palestinians may not be so happy with Hamas once it begins to adopt its preferred model of governance, namely that of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The relatively secular Palestinian population will not want to be forced into Islamic schools or to adopt the dress and behavioral code of the Iranian mullahs.

The more likely possibility is that Hamas will remain radical and make no effort to moderate its rhetoric or behavior. This outcome is not necessarily bad for Israel. One implication is that it is easier for Israel to make the case that it has no partner for peace. Before the election, State Department Arabists and others couldn’t be disabused of their faith in negotiations. Even now, some still hope to somehow rehabilitate Mahmoud Abbas even though he is impotent and incapable of making peace.

Now that it is clear that Israel has no negotiating partner, Israel can move forward with Disengagement II and few people will argue that it has an alternative to unilateral action. Assuming that Ehud Olmert wins the upcoming Israeli elections, as the polls predict, it is likely he will accelerate construction of the security fence and, when it’s complete, begin to evacuate the isolated settlements and establish a border along the fence route that incorporates the major settlement blocs.

In the meantime, if the West Bank and Gaza Strip turn into Hamastan, as some analysts suggest, Israel will now have far greater international support for taking more decisive military action against the Palestinians. During the Palestinian War of the last five years, Israel was extremely restrained in its response to terror, but the gloves are likely to come off if violence escalates.

Even though most of the world has expressed support for Israel’s position and taken a relatively strong stand against Hamas, no one should expect it to last. Once Hamas is clearly in power, more and more countries will feel the need to bend to the reality that this is the governing authority and the only way to help the poor, suffering Palestinian people is to work with the Hamas-led government. Already, Russia, Venezuela, and the entire Muslim world are prepared to recognize the new government. Before you know it, the EU will buckle and then Israel and the United States will be in their usual foxhole together, isolated in their goal of seeking peace and security against a patient enemy that believes time is on its side.