Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 March 2006
Issue No. 784
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Israel's clear-cut policy

The Israeli government has met Hamas's election win with confusion but its policy toward the Palestinians is clear, writes Graham Usher

Last weekend two surprising events happened in Israel. The first was the release of the latest batch of opinion polls on the Israeli elections on 28 March. Like their predecessors, they showed Ariel Sharon's Kadima Party winning about 40 seats in the 120-member parliament, with Amir Peretz's Labour Party taking around 20 and Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud Party even less. The second was that Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, spent his 78th birthday comatose in a West Jerusalem hospital, "his condition unchanged", said doctors. Israel's acting Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, wished him a full recovery at the weekly cabinet meeting.

The surprise was both events passed with barely a murmur in the Israeli media. Nearly two months since Sharon was stricken by a stroke Israelis are already well into the post- Sharon era. And one month before the polls most Israelis see the result as a foregone conclusion. Rarely has an Israeli election campaign been quite so dull. Israeli politics rather is still in the thrall of Hamas's victory in the Palestinian elections and what impact it will have, not so much on the campaign (which so far has been minimal), than in what will be Israel's policy toward the Islamist government thereafter.

For now only confusion rules, not only between the US and Israel, twin architects of the policy that the price of Hamas's entrée to "legitimacy" must be recognition of Israel, disarmament of the Palestinian resistance and adherence to past Palestinian-Israeli agreements. It reigns also within the ruling Kadima Party.

On 26 February Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told US Middle East envoy David Welch that as far as the Israeli government was concerned PA President Mahmoud Abbas "is simply not relevant". Rather American demands "need to be directed to Hamas". Abbas "mustn't be your fig leaf for a terrorist authority," she lectured. Such a stance is in flat contradiction of the US current policy of strengthening Abbas as a counterweight to the incoming Hamas government.

"I told (President Abbas) of our support for him and his leadership in this critical time facing the Palestinian people. I reaffirmed our confidence in the programme that he laid out before the Palestinian Legislative Council in his speech, where he called for a negotiated, two-state peace settlement," he said, after a meeting with Abbas in Ramallah.

Livni was also out of synch with the two most senior leaders of her party. On 27 February a spokesman for Olmert clarified "we will not refer to Abu Mazen (Abbas) as irrelevant. This is an inappropriate term." Former Labour Party leader and prime minister, Shimon Peres, was even blunter. "Israel must continue to talk with Abu Mazen, since he is responsible for contacts with Israel and for the Palestinians' foreign policy," he said.

But the confusion is only apparent. In fact Israel has a well honed strategy for the future. It was being implemented long before Hamas came to office and will continue regardless of whether it stays there, falls or even submits to the "three conditions". It was authored by Sharon and propounded by Olmert. They called it "separation" but it boils down to Israel's final, unilateral determination of its borders.

There are three planks. The first is to complete construction of the West Bank wall, which -- if the current route is adhered to -- will incorporate 10 per cent of the West Bank, including "Greater Jerusalem", into Israel. The second is to ethnically cleanse the Jordan Valley of its Palestinian residents so that it, too, will become "effectively annexed" to Israel. The third is the effect a permanent severance between the West Bank and Gaza, with the latter becoming the de facto Palestinian "state" with the life support courtesy of its crossing into Egypt. All three of these policies are well advanced, and were so before the 25 January Palestinian Authority elections.

They need not mean the PA's collapse, though that too could be the consequence. The PA's enfeebled survival is just as likely, though with more and more of its governmental functions being taken over by international bodies or "trustees". This too is already happening. Of the $142 million the European Union released on 27 February to tide the PA over the "transition" to the Hamas government, nearly half went to UNRWA -- the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees -- and $43 million went to Israeli companies to pay energy and utility bills. Only $21 million went to the PA, all of it for salaries.

Nor need it mean confrontation, though that too could happen. It could mean a truce, where Israel and a Hamas-PA come to practical arrangements to do with aid and services while eschewing "strategic issues" to do with negotiations and mutual recognition. In fact some Israelis are already advocating this approach. "Long-term interim agreements are more appropriate in this situation," says Ephraim Halevy, former head of Mossad. The next Israeli government "should not belittle Hamas but deal with it as it is".

This may chime with Hamas's thinking. Quietly some activists say the priority now should not be "confrontation" but a reprieve so that Hamas can consolidate its hold on the PA and get on with the job of governance. Publicly, of course, the line will be of defiance. "Hamas's victory provides an opportunity for the official Arab position to rearrange its cards and adopt a new strategy for confronting the Zionist occupation's intransigence", Hamas political leader, Khaled Meshal, told Al-Hayat newspaper on 26 February.

The question is what strategy can be mounted that will not only ensure the PA's survival but challenge Israeli plans for long- term, irreversible occupation? Writing in the Palestinian Al-Ayyam newspaper on 24 February, its editor and former PLO negotiator, Akram Haniya, can see only one. Hamas must found its future strategy on "three legitimacies", he says. "i) national, as expressed by the PLO's political programme" proposing a two-state solution; ii) "pan-Arab, outlined by the Arab peace plan" which calls for a full Israeli withdrawal from the 1967 occupied territories and a "just" resolution of the refugee problem and iii) "international, expressed by the various agreements" signed between Israel and the PLO.

Will this be enough to thwart the Israeli plans? "Not necessarily," he answers. Will it improve the Palestinians' capability to resist them? "Definitely".

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