Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Recognizing Hamas: Then What?

Israel's bottom line since it subverted the results of the Jan. 2006 Palestinian election has been to prevent Hamas from transforming itself from a violent outsider into a ruling party. Whther right or wrong, this is comprehensible: it is scary to allow the transformation of an organization that has used violence to achieve its goals into a legitimate government. Of course, marginalizing such an organization ensures that it will remain prone to violence, but giving it the added power of legitimacy does not ensure that it will become peaceloving. After all, the militarist power elite that governs Israel bases its foreign policy on the highly violence-prone policy of security through military superiority and obviously does not shy away from using that power. If Israel, with all its superiority as the regional superpower cannot be trusted to avoid violence, then it is easy to understand how Israel might be uneasy about trusting anyone else.

But no other route out of the chaos is evident, so some thinkers now foresee a ceasefire that would grant Hamas its desired (and earned by its democratic electoral victory in January 2006) governing role in return for an end to violence (presumably binding Israel also to end not only military violence against Gaza but also economic warfare).

Therefore, although for Israel to accept a ceasefire that leaves Hamas in charge would constitute a strategic defeat, this may nevertheless occur.

Question #1: If the two sides accept a ceasefire that ends Israel's economic boycott & leaves Hamas in control, what degree of international support for Hamas as the legitimate government of Gaza will be necessary in order to make the ceasefire work? Clearly, naming Hamas the regime in charge and then undermining it will only return the region to the cycle of violence. The only chance for peace is the provision of successful governance for Gaza. The time to figure out the detailed measured necessary to make this a reality is now - BEFORE a ceasefire is implemented.

Question #2: If the two sides accept a ceasefire that ends Israel's economic boycott & leaves Hamas in control, what will the impact on regional politics be? Such an outcome would seem to constitute a replay of the summer of 2006 in Lebanon, where Israeli violence enhanced the political position of an anti-Israel militant Islamic organization. Just as Hezbollah now finds itself with improved political prospects in Lebanon, the near future might well find Hamas ruling Palestine. It is hard to imagine Fatah emerging from the current war with much credibility. For Hamas to accept a ceasefire would also open it to charges of betrayal, so a more extremist faction seems likely to emerge under the ceasefire scenario. One wonders what conditions would be required for the empowerment and simultaneous legitimization of Hezbollah and Hamas to pacify rather than energize Islamic extremism. (I make the distinction here between violent Islamic extremism and non-violent Islamic activism. We should think of each as constantly existing as a political background landscape, with specific Islamic factions moving around in this landscape in response to conditions, internal power struggles, etc.)

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