Friday, January 30, 2009

Don't strengthen Hamas

Mark A. Heller


A week after his appointment as President Barack Obama's special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell is traveling in the region to implement the new president's promise to aggressively pursue the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Mitchell's highest priority would seem to be making sure the fragile cease-fire in Gaza holds. It is not. Like Hezbollah in 2006, Hamas has suffered a severe setback and, like Hezbollah since 2006, it will avoid provoking another major confrontation right away. The challenge, rather, lies in the other measures Hamas is already taking to rehabilitate its reputation and validate its defiant declaration of victory in the last round of violence.

If Mitchell does nothing to discredit that claim and allows Hamas to save itself, Hamas and the world view it shares with Hezbollah and their Iranian sponsors will appear even more to be on the winning side of history.

As they survey the devastation around them, the residents of Gaza must surely suspect - as a few have publicly conceded - that any more such victories and they are undone. But whatever reservations they may have about the path down which Hamas still seems intent on leading them, they are unwilling or unable to persuade it to change course.

Hamas has already begun to rebuild the tunnels to the Egyptian Sinai destroyed during the fighting. These tunnels will be used to smuggle in rockets and other weaponry. They will also be used to smuggle in the cash - from a financial supply chain that also leads to Iran - to finance Hamas compensation and reconstruction plans and to cement at least the compliance of beneficiaries, if not their loyalty.

At the same time, Hamas and its supporters continue to exploit the genuine deprivation of Gazans to ratchet up pressure on Israel to reopen border crossings, which Hamas will control on the Gaza side (while refusing any quid pro quo in the form of the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier abducted some 30 months ago).

Finally, Hamas has made discussion of a Palestinian national unity government conditional on agreement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to end peace negotiations with Israel.

There is a growing chorus call in the analytical community to "engage" Hamas, presumably on the assumption that a movement founded on the premise that there is no solution to the Palestinian problem "except by jihad" and committed to "raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine" can somehow be sweet-talked into accommodation.

There is not a shred of evidence to support this assumption. So Mitchell's task should be to isolate Hamas in order to "disengage" it from Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere.

The most critical lever to accomplish this is to clarify to Israelis and those Palestinians who are interested in a settlement precisely what they must decide with respect to borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security arrangements.

In practice, this can only begin to happen after the formation of a new Israeli government following national elections scheduled for Feb. 10.

Meanwhile, and even more urgently, Mitchell needs to keep alive the possibility of a viable negotiating process by preventing the re-empowerment of Hamas.

Specifically, he should begin to coordinate an effective, multi-pronged effort with America's NATO and regional allies that will 1) prevent the reopening of the tunnels and interdict the supply chains pouring weapons and cash into Hamas hands; and 2) provide direct access for needy Gazans to the outside world and to alternative humanitarian support and reconstruction funding, to be administered by or channeled through a multilateral consortium and the Palestinian Authority.

There is no doubt that Hamas will resist any steps to bypass and undercut its authority. The response should be that an American-led consortium will not collaborate in the rehabilitation and entrenchment of Hamas power, and that if Hamas insists on standing in the way, it will bear responsibility for failure to improve the lives of the ordinary Palestinians.

Benita Ferrero-Waldner, External Relations Commissioner of the European Union, has made clear that while emergency relief will continue no matter what, Europe should not support the reconstruction of Gaza under Hamas rule.

America under Obama needs to show the same understanding of the strategic issue at stake, and Mitchell's visit is the proper occasion to do that. If it is used instead to help Hamas save itself, this will doom any chances not only for a durable cease-fire, but also for the revival of any viable peace process.

Mark A. Heller is principal research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University, and co-author of "No Trumpets, No Drums: A Two-State Settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict."

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