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On The Scene

Raz: Who will crack first, Israel or Hamas?
Ismail Haniyeh, the political leader of Hamas, faces tough choices.


On the Scene

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- New faces are being put on old problems -- creating new tension but perhaps also options -- for Israel and the Palestinians, says Guy Raz, CNN's Jerusalem correspondent.

Hamas' stunning victory in last month's Palestinian parliamentary elections has introduced a new set of challenges in the diplomatic stalemate that has plagued this region for a decade.

The prospects don't look good.

The rhetoric coming from both the Israeli leadership and Hamas' more strident leaders grows louder and more intransigent as the days pass. Israel's caretaker government -- perhaps with an eye to Israeli elections set for next month -- is doing what parties do in these circumstances: it's playing the populist card.

The Ehud Olmert-led government has frozen the transfer of Palestinian tax revenue Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.

The money will be put into a trust, Israeli officials say, until the Hamas-led Palestinian government meets three demands:

  • recognition of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state
  • the renunciation of violence
  • the acceptance of all previous agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority beginning in 1994.
  • The hard-line right in Israel, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is also eyeing the upcoming elections.

    Though polls show Netanyahu's Likud party is likely to fare poorly, his lieutenants are ratcheting up the pressure on Olmert. The name they use for him is "Smolmert" -- a play on the Hebrew word for leftist, "smol."

    This tactic has not translated into popular support for Likud; Olmert's center-right Kadima party is still far ahead in the opinion polls.

    Hamas -- perhaps with an eye looking back on its election triumph -- is standing firm. The movement was elected on a platform of internal reform. Hamas' victory disproved the long-argued Arab position that internal reform could not occur in the Arab world so long as the conflict with Israel persisted.

    But Hamas was also elected by voters who viewed the vote as an expression -- or perhaps assertion -- of defiance: defiance against the United States and Israel who warned Palestinians against electing Hamas; defiance against Palestinian leaders who failed to achieve statehood through diplomatic means; defiance against an Arab world that has long provided rhetorical lip-service but hypocritically banned their own opposition movements from taking part in electoral politics.

    Chance for change?

    Hamas' 1988 foundation charter, to say the least, is problematic. It is viciously anti-Jewish and filled with conspiracy theories.

    But as one Hamas leader recently pointed out, "The charter is not the Quran ... it can be changed."

    Under what circumstances?

    Here is where Israel must decide whether it will pursue a policy that risks short-term gain and long-term disaster or a more nuanced form of strategic thinking.

    In the short term, Olmert is making decisions based on the upcoming March 28 Israeli elections. He wants to win and he doesn't want the right wing exploiting his political decisions at this point.

    But watch what happens after the election. Olmert knows, deep in his heart, that the majority of the Arab world will not fully accept a Jewish state in the land they've viewed as Palestine for a long, long time.

    Even with comprehensive peace agreements that may result in declarations that DO recognize a Jewish state, the acceptance of this geographic reality -- among the Arab masses -- may not emerge for generations.


    The comparison can be made with virtually any other conflict related to land. It took time for Germans to accept the loss of what they called "east Prussia" (parts of modern-day Poland and Russia) or the Alsace region in France. Many Hungarians still regard parts of Romania as their rightful land. Greeks still refer to Turkish Istanbul as "Constantinople" -- the spiritual capital of Eastern Orthodoxy for centuries.

    But what all these one-time conflict zones have in common is the popular acceptance of reality. Simply put, no Greek, German or Hungarian is, today, going to embark on a campaign to win back these lost territories. All the countries involved have strong diplomatic ties, albeit with widely different interpretations of history.

    The basic lesson here is that, ultimately, the march of history determines political outcomes far more than short-term policy. In Israel's case, imposing wide-ranging economic sanctions on the Hamas-led government may ultimately play directly into the movement's hands.

    Hamas will not be under public pressure to reform the government if it can't pay for those reforms.

    The movement will seek to broaden its ties to the wider Islamic world, threatening to increase the chances that the Arab-Israeli conflict becomes less one about nations and more one about religions.

    And finally, and most importantly, it is probably wrong to think that ordinary Palestinians will become more moderate if their government is isolated. The election of Hamas is a case in point.

    Ordinary Palestinians are unlikely to seek solace in the less-strident Fatah party if Hamas fails to achieve diplomatic victories. There is no historic precedent that shows a people under economic siege become more moderate as a result of external pressure.

    Breaking through

    Israel will not win the type of recognition it seeks from Hamas so long as both sides pursue an increasingly belligerent stance toward the other. It is a chicken-and-egg problem which will, undoubtedly, require one side to crack the egg first.
    Hamas can't do it immediately. Neither can Israel for its own internal reasons.

    But sooner or later, Israel will come under immense international pressure to ease up on its economic sanctions towards the Palestinian territories.

    At this point, Israel has a choice: either prepare for a sustained period of international pressure or take control of policy early and continue previous economic arrangements conditional on the absence of large-scale violence.

    If, six or seven months from now, Hamas proves itself to be a responsible, and stable steward of government, the world will probably be prepared to deal with it, whether or not it moderates its historic positions toward Israel.

    If Hamas leaders are rhetorically calling for the destruction of Israel to shore up support on the street, but practically preventing violent attacks against Israelis, Israel will find itself isolated rather than the reverse.

    When he was in charge, Ariel Sharon used to say: "We will judge the Palestinians on their actions, not words." Certainly Sharon would've taken a hard-line stance against Hamas. But at the same time, his successors cannot ignore Sharon's mantra.

    If Hamas exceeds international expectations, Israel risks being the loser. If Israel wants to maintain its negotiating position, it has to accept that Hamas will have to be dealt with so long as its actions do not reflect its words.

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