Ira Chernus  



There’s plenty of public celebrating in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as Hamas relishes its victory. But I suspect that there’s plenty of quiet, discrete celebrating going on in Israel, too. Certainly Bibi Netanyahu and his Likud followers must be delighted. The Hamas victory will give them fresh grist for their right-wing, hard-line mill and probably plenty of votes in the upcoming Israeli election.

Even some Israelis who won’t vote for Likud may be taking a quiet “I told you so” satisfaction. A sizeable portion of Israeli Jews are convinced that “the Palestinians” (as if several million people were all one person) really want to destroy the state of Israel. That deep-seated fear, more than anything else, keeps the Israeli public supporting harsh repressive policies in the Occupied Territories.

But as Palestinian leaders have moderated their stands, Israelis had to deal with a sneaking suspicion that their fear might be unjustified. Now, across Israel, there must be a weird sort of sigh of relief, as if to say, “Finally, the Palestinians have stopped lying to us and shown their true colors. Now we know our fears are justified.” The same sigh of relief may be heard from Jews around the world who support Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

What you won’t hear, outside some left-wing Jewish circles (which continue to flourish, thankfully), is the story of how Israeli policies have sustained and promoted Hamas over the years. Israel started funding the fledgling Hamas nearly 30 years ago. Ever since, Israel has supported Hamas. The funding may have stopped (though maybe not; who knows?).

But in the past decade the Israelis found a new, sure way to build up Hamas. They simply kept up the horrors of the occupation, driving more and more Palestinians to a desperation that only Hamas could articulate politically. And whenever Hamas declared a unilateral cessation of violence, Israel was almost sure to launch some kind of attack upon “suspected Hamas militants.” Israeli leaders knew, of course, that their violence would provoke a violent Hamas response and end the truce.

The common wisdom is that Israel wanted to build up Hamas as a counterweight to the all-powerful Yassir Arafat and his Fatah movement. No doubt it’s true. But it’s just one example of a much broader Israeli strategy: always keep the opposition divided. Israeli leaders have made that their number one principle, going back to before the Jewish state was born. That’s why they demonized Yassir Arafat and broke his political effectiveness. It’s why most Israeli leaders now are quite happy to have Hamas running the Palestinian legislature, while Fatah still dominates the executive branch.

Anything that makes it harder for Palestinians to unite politically is all to the good, Israeli leaders generally believe. Because “good,” to them, means blocking the path to a viable, vibrant, independent Palestinian state.   

Of course, that’s a terribly self-destructive notion of “good.” As long as the Palestinians have no state -- or a weak, geographically patchwork state under Israel’s thumb -- the conflict will go on. Israelis will continue to die and bleed. The Israeli economy will continue to bleed from excessive military spending.

Most importantly, the Israeli national soul will continue to bleed. When a nation sends its youngsters, day after day, to be persecutors and executioners in an unjust cause, it creates a spiritual wound that can take generations to heal. In Israel, this wound is felt and openly discussed every day. But most Israeli Jews still believe that they are essentially innocent, that “the Palestinians” force them to keep up the harsh repression. The Hamas victory will only confirm that feeling and lock the two sides deeper into their entrenched views.

This is tragic, because the Hamas rise to political power has actually opened up a new and unexpected path to peace.

Consider what happened when Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization took political power in the Occupied Territories, back in the 1970s. First, the PLO moderated its stand. From the mid-‘70s on, there was a rising tide of Palestinian opinion favoring a two-state solution. By the late ‘80s, Arafat was making it clear that the PLO leadership was open to a two-state solution, as long as it was just and equitable. Leaders who hold political power in weak states have to deal with reality, whether they like it or not.

Leaders in stronger states must bend to reality, too. But they don’t have to bend quite as far. Thus, the Israeli government, which outlawed contacts with the PLO, was secretly having those illegal contacts. But they never bore real fruit, because the Israeli government was interested only in ending Palestinian attacks, not in helping the Palestinians build a flourishing state. Israeli leaders, like most Jews everywhere, refused to accept the basic reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Terrorism” is not the root of the problem. It’s only a symptom. The underlying disease, the real root of the problem, is that one nation is militarily occupying and ruling (for all practical purposes) another nation.

Now we can expect the Hamas leadership to follow the path set by the PLO. It will moderate its rhetoric and its actions. And it will join secret talks with the Israeli government. But in those talks, Israel will be forced to confront the root of the problem -- not “terrorism,” but occupation. Hamas never wavers on this point. It insists that all negotiation begin from this basic premise. In other words, it demands that all parties in the negotiation base the talks on reality rather than imagination. That’s the only way to create a just and lasting peace.

The Hamas victory could open the door to peace in another way, too. Israel and the U.S. are busy making pompous statements that they simply will not deal with a government that aims to overthrow another nation and relies on armed violence to do it. Suppose Hamas feels the normal pressure on a government in power to moderate its stand. Suppose it adopts the same line. Then a Hamas-led government would have to refuse to deal, for example, with China until its troops leave Tibet. It would have to refuse to deal with Morocco until its troops leave Western Sahara.

By the same principle, of course, a Hamas-led government would have to refuse to deal with the U.S. until its troop leave Iraq—and with Israel until its troops leave Palestine. If you want to see leaders who rely on violence to overthrow and dominate other nations, you need look no further than the U.S. and Israel.

I hope that the Hamas PR machine can see these self-righteous U.S. and Israeli pronouncements for what they are -- softballs than an effective Hamas government can smack right out of the park. I hope they show up the U.S. and Israeli hypocrisy, early and often. But I hope that they also sincerely recognize that some day these two peoples must learn to live side by side in peace. It has to happen eventually. If not now, when?