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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Dilemmas of Israeli Policy After the Hamas Victory: From Disengagement to Consolidation?

Filed under: Hamas, Israeli Security, Palestinians, Peace Process, Radical Islam
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 5, No. 21     March 30, 2006

  • Hamas’ rise is likely to set back the “peace process” for years. Why should Hamas moderate in office, when its ideology is its raison d’etre? The Taliban, Iranian, Saddam and Assad regimes did not; neither did Arafat.
  • Assuming Hamas proves itself inalterably opposed to peace, it can be expected that the new Israeli government will explore the idea of further unilateralism in the West Bank, reflecting a growing Israeli despair over the prospects for a negotiated settlement.

  • If Israel disengages, it should end its civil rule in the vacated areas but maintain military control for security purposes and to retain future “negotiating cards.” This would entail the dismantling of settlements in the vacated areas and consolidating settlement blocs. Already, a new term has been coined in this regard: “consolidation.”

  • To be effective, the consolidation would be unilateral vis-a-vis the Palestinians, but should be made contingent on a major U.S., EU, and international quid pro quo, including:

    • Recognition of the consolidation as the fulfillment of all steps required of Israel under the Roadmap, pending final status negotiations, and of the vacated area in the West Bank and Gaza as the Roadmap’s provisional Palestinian state for the future.

    • Explicit EU recognition of the 2004 Bush letter which states that Israel’s future borders will reflect demographic realities, that the refugee issue can only be resolved within a Palestinian state, and that Israel has the right to defensible borders.

    • A major upgrading of Israeli relations with the EU, Egypt and Jordan, as well as the Gulf States and North African countries. Efforts should also be initiated with Saudi Arabia.

  • A policy of unilateral consolidation will pose difficult dilemmas for the new Israeli government. The Palestinians and the Arab League have already formally rejected the idea.

  • Unlike Gaza, Israel will be seeking a diplomatic quid pro quo for less than a full withdrawal, while leaving the army in place. The more extensive the withdrawal, the greater the likelihood of international assurances but also of greater security risks for Israel.



A Turning Point in Regional History


The formation of the new Hamas government is a turning point in regional history. It is as if al-Qaeda had been elected in Afghanistan, or the insurgents in Iraq. It is reminiscent of earlier times, when fanatical racists usurped Germany’s democratic process to promote an ideology of destruction and genocide. Hamas’ and its Iranian patron’s professed goal of destroying Israel must be taken seriously: fanatics, yes; idle talkers, no. Israel’s options for the future must take into account the lessons of the past.

After five years of bloodshed and out of total despair over the Palestinians’ inability to come to terms, Prime Minister Sharon implemented what was previously anathema for Israel – a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank. The potential promise was clear: if the Palestinians demonstrated a capacity to rule and end terror, Israel would make further withdrawals. But instead of doing everything to ensure that disengagement worked from day one, the Palestinians failed to conduct any preparations of consequence, descended further into chaos, and elected Hamas. Even if one accepts the debatable argument that Hamas’ rise reflects a desire for orderly government and an end to corruption, rather than support for its professed goal of destroying Israel, the likely outcome is, nevertheless, that the “peace process” will be set back for years.

Given these circumstances, there are a growing number of voices in the Israeli political arena that are suggesting pursuing unilateralism in the West Bank with the goal of establishing Israel’s final border over the next four years, as was expressed in the election platform of acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The ultimate territorial extent of this initiative would depend on future decisions regarding the line of the security fence and internal agreement with the settlement leadership and the next government’s coalition partners. Some proponents of this idea have also specified that the Jordan Rift Valley should be regarded as a security zone to be retained. Still, what was once anathema – unilateral withdrawals – has become the bon-ton of Israeli politics, based on a new variation of disengagement: removing Israel’s civilian presence from areas in the West Bank but retaining the military control of the IDF. Rather than calling this “disengagement,” it is called instead “consolidation” (or “convergence”).

For proponents of unilateralism, it is clear that unilateral measures, in and of themselves, are an inherently undesirable course of action, that they will not bring an end to violence and terror, nor enable the resolution of the truly difficult issues – the refugees, Jerusalem, and an end of the conflict. Unilateralism thus reflects a growing sense of despair that has taken hold in Israel in recent years regarding the prospects for peaceful reconciliation, a feeling that Israel can no longer allow its national agenda to be held hostage to the Palestinians’ never-ending intransigence, its national energies and resources sapped by their complete dysfunctionality. In the absence of any real prospect for a negotiated agreement, proponents of unilateralism believe that it would be the least of the bad options Israel faces, and that Israel would be at least partially relieved from the suffocating symbiotic relationship with the Palestinians and thus freer to get on with its true national agenda.



Elements of an Effective Israeli Policy


Assuming that the next Israeli government pursues this unilateralist approach, what measures should Israel adopt to ensure the most effective implementation of this policy while minimizing the attendant dangers and avoiding a repetition of some of the miscalculations made in the course of the Sharon government’s decision to disengage from Gaza? What would be the essential elements of an effective policy of unilateral consolidation in the West Bank?

First, Israel would have to be realistic and encourage others to be so as well. Despite our shared hopes to the contrary, the prospects of Hamas mellowing in office and of the corrupt Palestinian Authority (PA) undergoing a healthy “cleansing,” although not totally inconceivable, are extremely unlikely. Indeed, why should Hamas moderate in office when its extremist ideology is its raison d’etre and the basis for its electoral victory? The Taliban, Iranian mullahs, and the Saddam and Assad regimes did not grow moderate while in office; neither did Arafat, who never changed his fundamental approach toward Israel. A dozen years of rule only made the PA more corrupt and inflexible.

Second, Israel should always keep its fundamental national goals in sight, even when their prospects appear especially gloomy: peace with the Palestinians, with whom it is Israel’s fate to live side by side; security and freedom from violence and fear; guaranteeing that Israel remains a clearly Jewish and vibrant democratic state; socio-economic prosperity.

Third, the consolidation policy should be pursued in such a manner that short and mid-term exigencies do not preclude future options. To this end, Israel should hold open the possibility for negotiations, even if years away.



Establishing an Enhanced Diplomatic Quid Pro Quo


Instead of simply recoiling from Palestinian bellicosity, Israel should adopt a positive and conditional approach, expressing a willingness to talk to anyone, without regard to party affiliation, who unconditionally meets the “Three Rs” (recognition of Israel, renouncement of terror, and reaffirmation of all existing Palestinian commitments). The approach would be: we talked to the PLO, which was sworn to our destruction, we could talk to Hamas. This would put the onus on Hamas and provide the essential prerequisite for international support for unilateral measures.

Hamas must, therefore, be put to the test. Assuming that it does, indeed, prove itself implacably opposed to any compromise, Israel would then be justified in declaring that the period of negotiations has ended, at least for the foreseeable future, and would be far freer to impose a unilateral settlement to its liking. Though not permanent, this arrangement might be very long-term.

In implementing a consolidation plan, Israel would dismantle settlements and end its civil control in the vacated areas. It is imperative, however, that any disengagement strategy enable neither the reality, nor the perception, of a Hamas victory and of a vindication of its terrorist strategy. As the Gaza disengagement has shown, it is not sufficient to merely withdraw behind a fence: Kassam rockets and other weapons easily circumvent such obstacles. The IDF should thus remain deployed and in control of the vacated areas, as it deems militarily necessary, for defensive purposes. This would provide for Israel’s security, while retaining “negotiating cards” for future talks.

The consolidation in the West Bank, as in Gaza, would be unilateral vis-a-vis the Palestinians, but unlike the Sharon government’s approach, would be coordinated with the international community and made contingent on a major quid pro quo from it, not just from the U.S. This would, in effect, safeguard Israel’s standing for many years and place the burden for change squarely on the Palestinians. To this end:

  1. Failure of the new Palestinian government to adopt the “Three Rs” would result in its being considered “in breach” of the Roadmap, and its participation in the peace process in “abeyance.” International recognition and all but essential contact would be suspended.

  2. The consolidation would be recognized as fulfillment of all steps required of Israel under the Roadmap, pending future final status negotiations.

  3. The vacated area in the West Bank, together with the Gaza Strip, would be recognized as the basis for the provisional Palestinian state envisioned for the future in the Roadmap. The onus would be on the Palestinians to turn this into a reality, if they fulfill their Roadmap responsibilities to end terrorism.

  4. The EU would explicitly recognize the principles enunciated in President Bush’s letter of April 2004, which stated that Israel’s future borders will reflect demographic realities (the settlement blocs), that the refugee issue can only be resolved within a future Palestinian state, and that recognizes Israel’s right to defensible borders. In reality, the EU already accepts this; it is time to say so explicitly.

  5. The president’s letter should be updated and reframed in a format that provides greater assurance that it will be binding on future administrations as well, e.g., an MoU, with additional Congressional approval. Concrete commitments should be added regarding assistance for development of the Galilee and the Negev.

  6. Agreement on Israel’s post-disengagement security needs, including the true meaning of the international mantra, which ostensibly recognizes Israel’s “right to self defense” but denounces its use every time Israel is actually forced to take military measures even in the face of the most heinous acts of terror.

  7. A major upgrading of Israeli relations with the EU, Egypt and Jordan, as well as the Gulf States and North African countries. Efforts should also be initiated with Saudi Arabia.

A united international front would pressure the Palestinians to come to terms with reality, accept that they will never achieve 100 percent of their goals, and hasten their possible return to negotiations. Abu Mazen, ineffective at best, is likely to become even less effective now. He is, however, the best, or least bad, of the options we now face and Israel should thus pursue its policies in a manner designed to minimize the damage to his standing and respond favorably to any positive signs that he is finally getting serious. At the same time, Israel should not invest too much capital in what, unfortunately, appears to be a lost cause.



The Military Arena


Under any disengagement or consolidation, it is vital that we prevent Gaza and the West Bank from becoming bases for heightened attacks against Israel, which now faces Iranian-backed forces on three fronts (including Hizballah in the north). Implementation of the proposed consolidation thus makes it even more imperative that the security fence be completed as rapidly as possible. In an age of rockets, however, as both the security fence on the northern border and that around Gaza have shown, no defensive mechanism can provide full security, effective as they have been in preventing ground attacks.

Thus, while the completed fence would partially address Israel’s security needs and facilitate its ability to continue acting with restraint, the new consolidation would, nevertheless, have to be based on a concrete willingness to react forcefully to significant new attacks, in order to establish clear limits. Israel’s failure to implement its stated retaliatory policy after the Lebanon withdrawal emboldened Hizballah and other Arab extremists and undermined Israel’s deterrence. Israel should also demand that Abu Mazen, as the chairman of the PA, be held accountable for the acts, or lack thereof, of the Palestinian security services, even if they are placed under Hamas’ control.



The Economic Arena


It is essential that Israel’s policies minimize the prospects for a further exacerbation of domestic turmoil in the Palestinian territories, which cannot but have a negative spillover effect on Israel, including heightened terror. Israel has an interest in the Palestinians’ understanding the consequences of their vote and finally internalizing the fact that they alone bear responsibility for their socio-economic future – that being the eternal wards of the international community is not a long-term solution. At the same time, Israel has no interest in a Palestinian civil war or the collapse of the PA and essential public services. To this end, effective implementation of the disengagement policy would require that Israel encourage continued international assistance to the Palestinians, but only through international organizations, not via the Hamas government. Israel, too, should fulfill its financial commitments to the PA on the same basis. All efforts must be made to ensure that the funds supplied are not used for terror.

The Palestinians and the Arab League have already formally rejected Israel’s policy of unilateralism, though the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia did not attend the recent Arab League summit in Khartoum. Moreover, unlike the Gaza disengagement, Israel will be seeking a diplomatic quid pro quo for less than a full withdrawal, while leaving the Israeli army in place. The more extensive Israel’s withdrawal, the greater the likelihood of obtaining international assurances. However, Israel would then have to face greater security risks.

Unilateral measures are almost always undesirable; indeed, they fully resolve nothing and may at times result in outcomes that are even worse than the antecedent conditions. By taking the above measures, it is hoped that Israel can turn a future unilateralist strategy in the West Bank from an act of despair into one that optimizes its strategic interests.

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The author, formerly Israeli Deputy National Security Adviser and a senior analyst at the Israel Ministry of Defense, is now a Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.