If Israel has been trying systematically to undermine the peace camp in Palestine and prepare the ground for the growing of popularity and increase in credibility of Hamas among Palestinians, it has been stunningly successful. In this sense, Hamas’ victory in recent elections can be seen as Israel harvesting what it sowed.
But having been thus successful, Israel’s immediate reaction to the election result has reflected confusion. It is not at all clear what Israel now wants from Hamas: whether it is trying to pressure Hamas to change or is taking a principled position that there will be no dealing with Hamas under any circumstance.
This Israeli confusion has only been heightened by Israeli disappointment with the international reaction, which has ranged from the rigid American position of no dealings, whether financial or diplomatic, with a Hamas-led Palestinian government, to the Russian willingness to receive and deal with the Hamas leadership with all the legitimacy that this bestows upon the movement. In between, we have the European approach to set specific conditions for dealing with the next Hamas-supported government in Palestine, reflecting de facto bargaining with Hamas.
In this respect, both Israel and Fateh are going to face contradictions between their respective strategies and the behavior and attitude of prominent members of the international community. Both had based their immediate position and preliminary strategies on the assumption that the international community would not deal with Hamas. That expected boycott would have reinforced the freeze both Fateh and Israel were preparing in their relations with Hamas. But the emergence of different international attitudes is creating debate in these two camps, and reflects again the need for much closer coordination and dialogue between Israel and Fateh on the one hand and the main international actors on the other, before these parties can finalize their positions and strategies.
While the relations, if such they can be called, between Israel and Hamas may seem beyond compromise, the latter has very significant cards to play. It is obvious that the primary concern of Israel is security, and Israel will pay close attention to the behavior of Hamas in this regard. Hamas, which has accepted the principle of a ceasefire or hudna, can easily use this card in return for something such as Israeli acceptance of its survival as the dominant power in the Palestinian Authority. Israel is desperate to eliminate the most effective actor in violent confrontations between Palestinians and Israelis.
Hamas might also be able to embarrass Israel by showing a willingness to make political concessions and compromises. For this, Israel must be willing to answer questions related to Israeli settlement policies and to end the illegal occupation over the 1967 territories.
In other words, the challenge to Israel of Hamas’ election victory is much more complicated and serious than can be dealt with simply the way Israel is doing right now, i.e., by asking the world not to deal with the PA, its Legislative Council and government as long as Hamas is the dominant power. Beyond the immediate effect on the ground, such an approach will negatively impact Israeli relations with some of its significant international allies and threaten the comfortable position Israel has been enjoying internationally for a while now.
In preparing its strategy for the post-Palestinian elections era, Israel is now required to be ready to answer questions on the future of its occupation over Palestinian territory and on its share of the responsibility for developments within Palestinian society that led to the radicalization that brought Hamas to power. In simple terms, when Israel closed down any political prospects for Mahmoud Abbas and the peace camp, it left Palestinians with only one alternative: Hamas.