The alternatives are grim

Hamas appears to have survived the boycott imposed by the Quartet, Israel and some Arab states, at least to the extent of generating widespread interest in a reassessment of the efficacy of the boycott policy. The US State Department website recently posted a suggestion that American diplomats reexamine whether engaging Hamas is good or bad for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. PLO and Hamas representatives met in Yemen to discuss the possibility of reconstituting a Palestinian unity government (the talks proved abortive). And a growing Israeli lobby composed of figures from the left and the right is advocating an attempt by Israel to talk to Hamas.

That the boycott has failed is painfully obvious. The economic depravation of Gaza has not brought Hamas to its knees. Hamas is more popular than ever, not only in Gaza but in the West Bank as well. There, the other half of the western/Israeli strategy–bringing prosperity and stability to the population in order that the contrast between the two geographic parts of Palestine persuade the population to support the Abbas/Fayyad leadership and reject Hamas–has also failed. Palestinians in the West Bank enjoy painfully little prosperity and stability, and where they do the experience has not turned them against Hamas or made them enthusiastic supporters of President Mahmoud Abbas and the peace process he is identified with.

By the by, these developments warrant two insights concerning the conflict. First, the failure of the strategy of favoring the West Bank over Gaza to make the peace process attractive is but the latest in a 40-year series of abortive Israeli carrot and stick policies that mistakenly assumed it was possible to significantly influence Palestinian political behavior through economic means. You’d think we’d have learned.

Secondly, Palestinian opinion polls, and particularly the latest Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research poll with its striking findings regarding rising support for Hamas and its leaders as opposed to Fateh and Abbas, have become a potent instrument for influencing policy. This is not always a good thing: opinion polls, assuming they are accurate, are a snapshot reflecting the public’s reactions to specific events but not necessarily its inclination to respond to inspired leadership or breakthrough developments or, for that matter, the best policy options.

Were Abbas and PM Ehud Olmert to produce a dramatic new framework peace agreement tomorrow, would this enable Abbas to rally Palestinian public opinion and win the day over Hamas? Probably not–after all, Hamas is not likely to voluntarily give up power and might not permit free elections in Gaza if the objective is to vote it out of power. Yet precisely such a development is the desired corollary or end-product of the Quartet/Israeli/Abbas strategy and in this sense the strategy appears to have been flawed from the outset in its understanding of Hamas and that movement’s aims. But a new peace agreement has not (yet?) been unveiled, hence we cannot unequivocally deem this approach a total failure. (In Israel, incidentally, the public would probably reject an Olmert-Abbas peace "breakthrough" at the polls; but that is another matter touching largely on Olmert’s perceived shortcomings as a leader.)

Yet even without the test of a peace breakthrough end-product or payoff, the strategy appears to be coming apart at the seams. Broad international, Israeli and Palestinian concern over the apparent failure of the current strategy appears to be growing. Hamas in Gaza has not been discredited; Abbas’ leadership has failed yet again; Israeli outposts and checkpoints have combined with Fateh corruption, Fayyad government security lacunae and American mismanagement to give the peace process a bad name. The latest Israeli security concessions in the West Bank are not likely to make a difference. Hamas, with Syrian and Iranian backing, can be counted on to sabotage progress.

It is indeed time to look seriously at alternatives. We need a new strategy, but the prospects are grim. Are Israel’s best options military or diplomatic? Do they lie in Damascus or Gaza City? Certainly, we should beware of dramatic Israeli policy changes that further weaken Abbas, as long as there is any chance at all of a peace breakthrough.