Getting our Hamas priorities straight

The use of economic sanctions to weaken, neutralize, reform or even bring down the Palestinian Authority’s impending Hamas government appears for the moment to be the only game in town. But it probably won’t work, and could prove counterproductive.

Israel can hardly be expected to deliver funds to a Hamas government whose ultimate aim is to destroy it. Israel and the international community–the United States, European Union, United Nations and others–may differ on the timing of the imposition of sanctions and their severity, but not regarding the principle. With the swearing in of the new PA Legislative Council, Israel proclaimed that it would no longer transfer customs and VAT collected on behalf of the PA, whereas diverse international actors are waiting for a Hamas cabinet to be formed. Israel is withholding only taxes at this point; others are looking for ways to transfer funds to non-Hamas NGOs or to institutions under the control of President Mahmoud Abbas rather than Hamas.

This approach is laced with contradictions. Logically speaking, why allow Palestinian imports to pass through Israeli ports on their way to Gaza and the West Bank, but withhold the excise taxes levied on these imports? Is the international community not fooling itself that it is possible to turn over funds to Abbas and to select NGOs and ministries without ultimately helping the Hamas government? Will political and economic pressure really force dedicated Islamists to recognize Israeli sovereignty over what they deem to be sacred Islamic lands? Alternatively, does anyone really believe that Israel will allow Palestinians to starve or even, in the unsavory words of the prime minister’s adviser, Dov Weisglass, to be forced to "diet"?

If, by withholding funds, Palestinians are indeed made to suffer (more than they already do), what guarantee do we have that this will turn them against Hamas and cause them to return Fateh to power? Have earlier attempts to impose economic sanctions actually made Palestinians more moderate? The argument is offered that Palestinians did not vote for Hamas because of its extremist platform regarding Israel, but rather in order to protest against Fateh’s corruption and inefficiency. Then why didn’t they vote in larger numbers for Salam Fayad and other secular reformers who ran in the elections?

Withholding donor and tax funds and blocking Palestinian exports and imports are not new tactics. They were tried, with little effect, during the Arafat era and the second intifada. In the present case, they bear the added disadvantage of being perceived as punishing Palestinians for making a democratic choice. We must accept that it is now too late to turn back the clock on the outcome of these elections. A Hamas government is the Palestinian will.

Hence the real question we have to ask ourselves is, can anything make Hamas substantively (rather than tactically) modify its platform regarding Israel? If financial pressure is likely to fail, could peer pressure from fellow Arabs be more successful? Could inducements ("carrots") offered in parallel with financial pressure ("sticks") be effective, or will they merely be seen as a sign of weakness?

The truth is, we simply don’t know. This is the first democratically-elected Islamist government allowed to take office in the Arab world, and there are no precedents for dealing with it, particularly when we factor in the conflict with Israel. (There is a precedent for preventing such a government from taking office, in Algeria some years ago. It caused untold suffering. Neither the PA security establishment nor Israel is likely to follow the example of the Algerian army.)

One additional truth is very relevant in this context. Most Israelis ceased looking for a viable Palestinian partner for immediate peace negotiations several years ago, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Oslo process and the Palestinian decision to adopt the strategy of suicide bombings. The advent of Hamas to power in Ramallah and Gaza has merely reinforced the inclination of a majority of the Israeli public to build a strong fence, remove outlying settlements, and opt for demographic security, and to do it all unilaterally. Even the knowledge that disengagement from Gaza strengthened Hamas does not deter Israelis intent on getting out of what is perceived to be a counter-productive occupation, a disastrous messianic settlement enterprise and a Palestinian demographic trap.

This is the likely Israeli agenda for the next few years. It can be accomplished vis -a-vis a Hamas government or a Fateh government, though obviously a Fateh government could offer modes of coordination that Hamas presumably would disdain, and removal of West Bank settlements in the Hamas era might not involve removal of the IDF from the territories in question.

Thus economic sanctions as a means of punishing, weakening, reforming or even toppling a Hamas government are not the central issue. It is more important and more feasible to isolate the Hamas phenomenon while Israel proceeds with its agenda. For this we need close cooperation with Egypt and Jordan. And we must persuade Washington to cease sponsoring democratic elections in which armed Islamist militias are allowed to participate. This is the principal root of the current evil, not only in Palestine but in Iraq and Lebanon as well.