History shows that in the delicate arena of foreign policy, actions often have unintended, if not devastating, consequences. It is for this reason that I fear that Israel's response to the Palestinian Authority's successful bid for non-member observer state status at the U.N. does not serve its long-term interests.
In 2006, Hamas, whose charter calls for Israel's destruction, won the Palestinian elections. Election outcomes are complex, but there are two factors that merit mention. First, the Palestinian people grew dismayed by Fatah, the party founded by Yasser Arafat and run by his successor, Mahmoud Abbas. Fatah, which pledged nonviolence, recognized Israel and supported a two-state solution was largely viewed as corrupt and ineffectual.
The second factor was Hamas' expansive social services operation, financed by Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. As Israeli scholar Reuven Paz noted, "Approximately 90 percent of its work is in social, welfare, cultural, and educational activities." In the Gaza Strip, where 1.7 million people are crammed into one of the most densely populated areas in the world, 40 percent of the population is unemployed, and over 50 percent of people are under 18 years old, these social services are a vital lifeline that is very much welcome. And it is not hard to see why the purveyors of healthcare, food, and education would find support at the ballot box.
Hamas and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority are rivals with very different ideologies and approaches. In fact, relations between the groups are so fraught with hostility that once Hamas allegedly tried to assassinate President Abbas. Hamas now rules Gaza and the Palestinian Authority governs in the West Bank, and the two governments are very much separate, competing entities
Last week, Palestinian Authority President Abbas successfully petitioned the United Nations General Assembly for non-member observer state status. While the tactical efficacy of this move is the subject of debate, I am more interested in Israel's response.
After the U.N. vote, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet retaliated by moving forward with plans to build over 7,500 settlement apartments in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Building these settlements in areas that would constitute the putative Palestinian state impede the prospects for a two-state solution. Furthermore, the Israeli government decided to withhold $100 million in tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority. When the Palestinian people see that they do not gain, and actually stand to lose, from the Palestinian Authority's nonviolent approach, the one clear winner is Hamas. Yes, the Hamas that rejects Israel's right to exist and whose military wing fires rockets into Israel and supports suicide bombings. Yes, the Hamas that scored a political victory in its recent conflict with Israel for its "armed resistance" and securing the relaxation of border restrictions as a condition of its ceasefire with Israel. Yes, the Hamas that enjoyed an upsurge in popularity delivering the release of over 1,000 prisoners from Israel in exchange for releasing captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit last year.
Instead of emboldening Hamas, Israel -- and the United States, Canada the European Union and others -- must help the Palestinian Authority succeed. Compromises and agreements achieved through negotiation, not kidnapping and rocket attacks, will signal that nonviolent approaches yield better results than violence and fundamentalism. Rather than cutting funding, if anything, Israel and its allies should increase aid to the Palestinian Authority so it can rival Hamas' social services and be better equipped to improve the lives of its people.
I am not suggesting that the Palestinian Authority is perfect or that it will always act in a way that Israel and its allies find agreeable -- that is obviously not the case. However, in the words of an old adage, Israel should not "let the perfect be the enemy of the good." On Friday, Hamas' political leader, Khaled Meshaal, visited Gaza, where he was greeted with great fanfare and declared at a rally:
Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on an inch of the land... We will never recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation and therefore there is no legitimacy for Israel, no matter how long it will take.
The Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, has the potential to be a partner for peace. Weakening it bolsters Hamas and makes the prospect of peace all the more elusive. Israel stands to lose if Hamas becomes the only game in town.