On Eve of Elections, Israeli Leaders Play Into Hands of Palestinian Militants

By Ira Chernus · 3 Feb 2009

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Picture credit: Dedito
Picture credit: Dedito

Editor's Note: The U.S. mainstream media has featured several stories recently alleging that Hamas broke the fragile ceasefire that ended the Israeli assault on Gaza.Below, Ira Chernus notes that the Israeli media is telling a different story. Also, see Eva Bartlett's piece, "Israel Broke "Ceasefire" Hours After it Went Into Effect" 

In the last few days, while the U.S. mass media offered up only sensational headlines like “Gaza militants fire rockets into Israel,” and “New Gaza exchanges strain truce,” the Israeli press was reporting some really important news: “Hamas agrees to 1-year lull.” 

Everyone -- outside of the U.S. media and political establishments -- seems to agree that Hamas is holding its fire. The head of Israel’s Military Intelligence service, Amos Yadlin, told the Israeli cabinet that Hamas is not responsible for the current wave of attacks: “Terrorists that are not Hamas are challenging Hamas and carrying out attacks for a renewed escalation.”  Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, former head of the Israeli military (IDF), also argued for restraint: “If Hamas tried to prevent shooting, I would first strike the responsible organization.” 

But will Israeli leaders indeed be restrained? Will they retaliate only against the people actually firing the rockets?  Or will they go beyond the rather limited retaliations of the last few days and strike back at Hamas, claiming that the ruling party can and should control all the dissident militants in Gaza?  That route would surely scuttle Hamas’ bid for a pause in the violence. 

Israeli leaders are divided on the question. Defense Minister Ehud Barak reportedly wants to respond positively to Hamas, predicting that "Israel is on the verge of a long period of quiet." But Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is against it, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has thus far remained silent. 

So Hamas is taking a risky step in holding its fire -- offering a period of calm without knowing how the Israelis will respond, because the Israeli leaders are quarreling among themselves. 

If the Israelis are undecided, that may be because they are not sure how Hamas will respond to any steps they take. They know that Hamas leaders are divided on fundamental policy issues. The Israeli public knows it too.  They read headlines like “Hamas deeply divided over Blair remarks,” and “Gaza Hamas heads furious with Meshal decision to end lull.”  (Back in November, it turns out, “Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip sought to extend the six-month cease-fire … and are furious with Hamas' Damascus-based political bureau chief Khaled Meshal's decision to end the truce.”)  

These are just the most recent of many dozens of Israeli news stories over the years about internal disputes within the Hamas governing structure. 

None of the internal conflicts on the two sides of the world’s most heated divide should come as any surprise. Governments naturally have their left, right, and center factions engaged in endless squabbles. So do political parties. Remember the old joke about the Democrats’ firing squad, formed up in a circle -- which is now widely told about the Republicans too? It’s the same story all over the world. 

Israelis who pay attention to their own press have long known that Hamas is not the monolithic Borg-like monster -- the solid bloc of pure evil -- that the U.S. mass media portray. Hamas is a long-standing political party and now a government. Naturally it has its hard-liners, its compromisers, and its centrists. Palestinians who pay attention know that the same is true of the Israelis. 

Which means that both sides face the same dilemma:  If they take conciliatory steps, they strengthen the hand of the compromisers on the other side. If they take a tough stand, they strengthen the hand of the hard-liners on the other side. That’s the most elementary equation of politics.  

So when militants beyond Hamas’ control fire a few rockets into Israel, they are surely hoping to block the group’s peace moves. And when Tzipi Livni rejects negotiations with Hamas for a one-year calm, she knows she is helping the group’s right-wingers, the minority who really do want Israel as a separate political state to disappear. 

Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert knows he is doing the same when he threatens a "fierce and disproportionate" response to rockets fired from Gaza, holding Hamas responsible for all violations of the calm.  He must have expected the response he got: “Hamas spokesman Taher Nunu accused Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of trying to scuttle an Egyptian-brokered truce in Gaza.” 

Why would Israel’s prime minister and foreign minister take such a hard-line stance against Hamas, a stance that is likely to smash the fragile hope for peace, even as Hamas pushes for an extended pause in fighting?  The most obvious answer, again, is internal politics.  

Since both are leaders of the Kadima party, they may not care much about the Hamas response to their words at all. They are probably much more concerned about their real enemy:  the right-wing Israeli Likud party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, who sums up his position bluntly:  "No matter how strong the blows that Hamas received from Israel, it's not enough." Likud is slightly ahead of Kadima in polls taken just ten days before the election. 

The fierce Israeli electoral contest may also explain yet another setback for the peace process. In the middle of the delicate negotiations, Defense Minister Barak’s office sent out a press release about plans to develop “Area A1,” a strip of land connecting Jerusalem with the booming town of Ma’aleh Adumim, one of Israel’s largest West Bank settlements: "Ma'aleh Adumim is an inalienable part of Jerusalem and the State of Israel in any permanent settlement. A1 is a corridor that connects Ma'aleh Adumim to Mount Scopus and therefore it is important for it to remain part of the country.”  

A statement from the Ma'aleh Adumim Municipality claims that this "contiguous construction between our city to the capital Jerusalem will be the Zionist response that will prevent the division of Jerusalem." 

Ha’aretz reporter Amos Harel adds:  “The other side of the coin, of course, is that this sort of contiguity will prevent Palestinian construction between East Jerusalem to Ramallah, and will make it difficult to reach agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on the question of permanent borders. This is why the U.S. has strongly opposed this sort of Israeli construction for more than a decade. Israeli governments have avoided construction in this area, mostly because of U.S. pressure.” 

Why buck the U.S. pressure now? Perhaps Israelis are afraid of the new U.S. president and his new Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, who has previously criticized the settlement policy. Leaders of Barak’s Labor Party, struggling to improve its position in the upcoming election, may want to show voters that it too will resist peace pressures from their American friends. 

But that won’t be enough to satisfy more conservative Israeli voters. A recent editorial in the right-leaning Jerusalem Post excoriated Kadima for being ready to give away virtually the whole West Bank.  The Post acknowledged that Kadima agrees with Labor on developing A1: “Large settlement blocs like Ma'aleh Adumim, which abuts the capital on the east, would be annexed to Israel. In return, the Palestinians would take possession of an equal amount of land in southern Israel.” But for the Post’s audience, that is a meaningless concession in a program that’s otherwise far too liberal. 

Which raises the possibility that internal Israeli politics may not tell the whole story. Livni has made no secret about why she opposes the Hamas truce offer: "An arrangement with Hamas will give it legitimacy” in the world’s eyes, she says. She would rather see a policy that “will at the end of the day bring about an end to the Hamas regime.”  At a recent campaign rally, Livni voiced the deeper concern that lies beneath her fear of Hamas:  “Peace is in our self-interest. The prevention of a binational state is in our self-interest.” 

Labor’s support for the A1 development shows that, as it extends one hand in peace to the Palestinians, it too would use the other hand to block the path to peace. As for Netanyahu and Likud, they are campaigning on a pledge to destroy Hamas and resist the U.S. goal -- much of the world’s goal -- of a viable independent Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. 

Whatever the Israeli leaders’ motives, the signal they send to moderate Hamas leaders is to think twice, or even three times, before taking any risks for peace. With so much to lose as they struggle against their own hard-liners, Hamas moderates may easily feel that they have little to gain.

By Ira Chernus. Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.

This article was originally published by Alternet. SACSIS cannot authorise its republication.

You can find this page online at http://sacsis.org.za/site/article/226.1.

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