Negotiations between Likud and its coalition partners toward the formation of Israel's next government have only just begun. But the campaign to undermine the government-in-formation's ability to determine Israel's future course is already well underway.
Incoming Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu must understand the traps being set for him and their sources. And as he builds his government, he must appoint ministers capable of working with him to extricate Israel from those traps and discredit their sources.
On Thursday, US President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell arrived in Israel for his second visit. Whereas Mitchell's last visit – which took place in the last days of the electoral campaign – was touted as a "listening tour," Mitchell made clear that during his current stay, he intends to begin calling shots.
His first order of business, we are told, is to pressure the outgoing government to destroy the so-called outpost communities in Judea and Samaria and expel the hundreds of Israeli families who live in them. To defend this call for intra-Israeli instability and violence, Mitchell notes that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave his word to former president George W. Bush that he would destroy these communities.
Lest Israelis believe that Mitchell will drop this demand once Olmert leaves office, he has made clear that as far as he is concerned, Olmert's pledge was not his own – but Israel's. In Mitchell's view, it binds Netanyahu no less than Olmert. So if Olmert leaves office without having sent IDF soldiers to throw women and children from their homes, Mitchell, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will feel free to pressure Netanyahu to take on the task, and to punish him if he refuses.
If the Obama administration believes that the presence of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria is the primary obstacle to peace, then the Hamas regime in Gaza is the second greatest obstacle to peace. As long as Hamas, a recognized terror group, is in charge, the administration will be hard-pressed to push Israel to accept a Palestinian state.
To remedy this situation, the Obama administration has opted for a political fiction. The president and his aides have decided that a Hamas-Fatah government will moderate Hamas, and that therefore such a government will not only be legitimate, it is desirable. Whereas when the first Hamas-Fatah government formed in March 2007, the Bush administration refused to have anything to do with it, today the Obama administration is actively backing its reestablishment.
As the Obama administration apparently sees it, a Hamas-Fatah government will provide cover for stepped up pressure on Israel to surrender land to the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria, because Israel will no longer be able to claim that it has no Palestinian partner. A Hamas-Fatah government will also allow the US to directly support the Palestinians in Gaza, by coercing Israel to transfer full control over its borders with Gaza to Hamas (which will be represented by Fatah), and by enabling the US to provide direct aid to Palestinian Authority agencies in Gaza.
To advance the administration's efforts to legitimize Hamas, Clinton will begin her first visit to the region at a conference in Cairo on Monday that seeks to raise some $2.8 billion for Gaza. She will pledge nearly a third of that amount – $900 million – in the name of US taxpayers.
The administration claims that none of this money, which it plans to funnel through UNRWA, will go toward funding Hamas. But this contention is demonstrably false.
UNRWA openly collaborates with Hamas. Its workers double as Hamas combatants. Its refugee camps and schools are used as Hamas training bases and missile launch sites. Its mosques are used as recruiting grounds. And as UNRWA's willingness to transfer a letter from Hamas to US Sen. John Kerry during his visit to Gaza last week demonstrated, the UN agency is also willing to act as Hamas's surrogate.
While it makes sense for Hamas to agree to join a unity government that will leave it in charge of Gaza and expand its control to Judea and Samaria as well, on the surface it makes little sense for Fatah to agree to a deal that would subordinate it to the same forces who brutally removed it from power in Gaza in 2007. But Fatah has several good reasons to be enthusiastic about the deal.
First, by joining Hamas, Fatah will be able to get its hands on a considerable portion of the international aid money expected to pour into Gaza. Second, by joining Hamas, Fatah neutralizes – at least in the short term – Hamas's interest in destroying it as a political force in Palestinian society. Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas's term in office as PA chairman expired last month. Were elections to be held today, he would lose a bid for reelection to Hamas's candidate by a wide margin. By joining a Hamas government, he will probably avoid the need to stand for reelection anytime soon.
For Israel, a US-supported Hamas-Fatah government is a hellish prospect. The political support such a government will lend to the terror war against Israel will be enormous. But beyond that, such a government, supported by the US, will likely cause Israel security nightmares.
As a goodwill gesture ahead of the opening of unity talks this week in Cairo, Fatah released the Hamas operatives its US-trained forces had arrested. Due to US pressure, over the past year, Israel allowed those forces to deploy in Jenin and Hebron, and in recent months they took some significant actions against Hamas operatives in those areas. Based on this record of achievement, Clinton and Mitchell have been pressuring Israel to transfer security control over all the Palestinian cities in Judea and Samaria to these forces.
But now that Fatah and Hamas are acting in concert, any such transfers of authority to Fatah will constitute a surrender of control to Hamas. While no Israeli government could accept such a demand, the Obama administration, which supports the Hamas-Fatah government, is likely to view Israel's refusal to continue to cooperate with Fatah as a reason to criticize Israel.
THE OBAMA administration's ability to disregard the will of the Israeli voters and the prerogatives of the incoming government owes a great debt to the legacy that the outgoing Olmert-Livni-Barak government is leaving behind.
The outgoing government set the conditions for the Obama administration's policies in three ways. First, by not defeating Hamas in Operation Cast Lead, and then agreeing to negotiate a cease-fire with the terror group, the government paved the way for Hamas's acceptance by the US and Europe as a legitimate political force.
Just as its willingness to conduct negotiations with Syria paved the way for the administration's current courtship of Iran's Arab client state, and its willingness to accept UN Security Council Resolution 1701placed Hizbullah on equal footing with Israel at the end of the Second Lebanon War, so, too, the outgoing government's willingness to negotiate with Hamas has facilitated the current US and European drive to accept the Iranian proxy as a legitimate political force in Palestinian society.
Second, since Hamas's electoral victory in January 2006, the outgoing government accepted the false narrative that the Palestinian people in Gaza, who freely voted Hamas into power and have supported its regime ever since, bear no responsibility for the consequences of their actions. This false distinction between Hamas's supporters and Hamas tied Israel's hands each time it was compelled to defend itself against Hamas's aggression. After all, if Gazans are all innocent, then Israel's primary responsibility should be to make sure that they are safe. And since its counterterror operations necessarily place them at risk, those operations are fair game for international condemnation.
Moreover, at the same time that Israel accepted the dishones
t distinction between Hamas and its supporters, it willingly took on responsibility for the welfare of Gaza residents. As Hamas shelled Sderot and Ashkelon and surrounding communities, Israel bowed to international pressure to supply its enemy and its enemy's supporters with food, medicine, fuel, water and anything else that Hamas and the West could reasonable or unreasonably claim fell under the rubric of humanitarian aid. Had Israel not accepted responsibility for a population that freely chose to be led by a group dedicated to its annihilation, today Clinton would be hard pressed to pressure Israel to open its border crossings into Gaza, or to justify giving $900m. to Gaza.
Finally, through its unlimited support for Fatah, the outgoing government has made it enormously difficult for the incoming government to explain its objections to the Obama administration's policies, either to the Israeli people or to the Americans themselves. By supporting Fatah, the Olmert-Livni-Barak government set up a false distinction between supposed moderates and supposed extremists. That distinction ignored and so legitimized Fatah's continued involvement in terrorism, its political war against Israel and its refusal to accept Israel's right to exist.
If Fatah is legitimate despite its bad behavior and bellicose ideology, then two things must be true. First, abstaining from terror can no longer be viewed as a precondition for receiving international legitimacy. And second, there is no reason not to accept Hamas. Based on the latter conclusion, many European leaders and Israeli leftists now openly call for conducting negotiations with Hamas. And based on the former conclusion, the Obama administration feels comfortable escalating its demands that Israel give land, security powers and money to Fatah, even as it unifies its forces with Hamas and so expands Hamas's power from Gaza to Judea and Samaria.
DUE TO the Olmert-Livni-Barak government's legacy, when it enters office the Netanyahu government will lack the vocabulary it needs to abandon Israel's current self-defeating course with the Palestinians and defend its actions to the international community in the face of the Obama administration's use of dishonest terms like "peace processes" and "moderates" and "humanitarian aid" to constrain Israel's ability to defend itself. To surmount these challenges, Netanyahu must move immediately to change the terms of debate on the Palestinian issue.
Despite his great rhetorical gifts, Netanyahu cannot change the terms of international debate by himself. He needs two seasoned public figures who understand the nature of these challenges at his side. If Netanyahu appoints Natan Sharansky foreign minister and Moshe "Bogie" Ya'alon defense minister, he will have the top-level support he needs to overcome his predecessors' legacy and change the nature of contemporary discourse on the Palestinians and on Israel's strategic significance to the West in the face of staunch opposition from Washington.
Like Netanyahu, Sharansky and Ya'alon understand the basic dishonesty of the current international conversation relating to the Palestinians. Both men have come out publicly against the false policy paradigms that have guided both the outgoing government and the US and Europe. Both are capable of working with Netanyahu to free Israel from the policy trap being set for him.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.