THE tragic end of Hamas's kidnapping of an Israeli soldier and the awful bus explosion Wednesday in the heart of Tel Aviv that killed 22 Israelis raise a number of daunting issues about the prospects for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Certainly, resuming negotiations in the next few days, as Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization have agreed to do, is correct. But that step alone will not stifle future violence or guarantee a breakthrough that would do away with Hamas as an organization. Both Israel and the PLO must address the real challenge Hamas poses, and tackle it directly and decisively.
It is a mistake to think that Hamas members are disorganized hoodlums with no strategy or agenda. They want to achieve power. The only way they remain politically relevant is by challenging the PLO's authority and by defying Israel. Their strategy is to maintain low level anti-Israeli violence, to avoid massive Israeli retaliation. Occasionally, they resort to a spectacular act, such as Wednesday's suicide bus explosion - presumably revenge for the killing by Israeli forces of three Hamas members who kidnapped Cpl. Nachshon Waxman. Regardless of any condemnation, including that of PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, Hamas is relying on anti-Israeli violence to attract international attention.
Crackdown not the answer
Throughout Israeli-PLO negotiations on Palestinian elections, Israel has insisted that no Palestinian group opposing the Oslo accord can participate in the election. Though on the face of it, the Israeli demand seems justifiable, it is hardly consistent with either democratic principles or the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations.
The Rabin government could not possibly exclude any of the Israeli opposition political parties from the electoral process simply because they oppose the Israeli-PLO agreement. By what logic then could they bar Hamas? Unlike the Israeli political parties, the rationale goes, Hamas is a violent organization bent on undermining the peace and therefore has forfeited its right to be part of the democratic process.
The problem is, Hamas isn't going to die a natural death. Yes, Hamas's violent acts must be met with stiff countermeasures by Israel, and in particular by the Palestinian authority. The PLO leadership cannot afford to do less if they want to strengthen their waning authority in the eyes of Israel and Palestinians who support peace. However, cracking down on Hamas won't, by itself, solve the problem.
Many thousands of Hamas members have legitimate grievances. They have been ignored by the PLO. They are not participating in any of the newly developing social and economic institutions; thousands of their comrades are still languishing in Israeli jails. Their growing political power and numbers warrant more deliberate attention. A policy of both carrot and stick should be applied.
Israel and the PLO must use Corporal Waxman's abduction and his tragic end, and the death of innocent Israelis in Tel Aviv, as a catalyst for new approaches. They must resist Hamas's violence - but tolerate its political opposition to the peace process. Hamas's leaders should know that relinquishing violence would open the door to their political participation. Under the same conditions Israel could release, in stages, many of Hamas's prisoners - in particular Hamas's founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who beseeched Waxman's captors not to kill him. Such a unilateral step by Israel could change the whole complexity of the emerging Israeli-Hamas conflict.
Suppose Hamas wins
This is not an appeasement, but a realistic assessment of changing conditions and the need to articulate a new strategy - one no less daring than the opening of a dialogue with the PLO more than two years ago. Only a fool would think that Israel is acting out of weakness. Hamas members know that they cannot destroy Israel, and they also know that the only way to legitimacy is through the political process that Israel must recognize. The problem is that both Israel and the PLO are fearful that Hamas may indeed gain further political notoriety through democratic election. But then what is the alternative?
Suppose Hamas wins a majority in a Palestinian election, as the legitimate representatives. Their leaders will have to either honor the Israeli-PLO agreement and continue with the peace process, or maintain their strategy of violence and face the grim prospect of losing whatever the PLO has gained and possibly face destruction. The answer to Hamas will not be found by either delaying the Palestinian election, denying them the right to participate in the political process, or systematic persecution. Those Israelis and Palestinians who believe in the faint hope that a dramatic improvement in the Palestinian socioeconomic conditions would render Hamas in time irrelevant are misreading Hamas's real political pulse.
Like its counterparts in Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas will have to settle for whatever political power it can muster through open and free elections. It will have to adjust to Israel's presence. Hamas knows the alternative could be suicidal.
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