Sunday, January 28, 2007

As long as we impose sanctions

By Zvi Bar'el

Thursday will mark a year since the democratic elections in Palestine that brought Hamas to power - a year since the shock and frustration were replaced by a policy of sanctions that has pushed the Palestinian Authority to the brink of civil war and warfare in the streets of Gaza. The accomplishments of this policy resemble those of the international sanctions policy imposed on Iraq: It has not deposed the Hamas government, Qassam rockets continued to land in Israel and it did not serve as an alternative for the need for IDF action. Even worse, the Palestinians' effort to extricate themselves from the sanctions has given new power brokers - Syria and Iran - a basis of support in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not only Ismail Haniyeh, the outcast, heeds the directives of Khaled Meshal, Iran and Syria, but Mahmoud Abbas, the friend, is also compelled to accept Damascus' "recommendation" to meet with Meshal.

The Israeli assumption that it would be enough to apply heavy economic pressure and arrest members of the Palestinian parliament and government ministers to overturn the election results, turned out, as expected, to be mistaken. Like in Iraq, which existed for 13 years under a regime of sanctions, or Libya, which endured 11 years of sanctions, the citizenry suffers and barely survives, yet does not take to the streets to protest against the failures of the government that represents it. Standing steadfast against sanctions imposed by an occupier is still considered national heroism. Donations, waiving salaries and a great deal of voluntary activity somehow manage to keep the health and education systems in operation. They are continuing to teach at the universities and even artistic work has not come to a halt.

But unlike other sanction regimes, Israel is setting conditions but not promising anything in return. Thus, even if Haniyeh starts wearing a skullcap and Khaled Meshal begins humming Hatikva, and even if Abbas makes it mandatory to teach the heroic story of Masada in Palestinian schools, Israel does not want and is unable to propose a diplomatic alternative that would lead to the establishment of an independent and democratic Palestinian state. It does not want to - because any such proposal would mean a withdrawal from most of the territories and the dismantling of most of the settlements. It is unable to - because there is no government of Israel. After all, even when it appeared that there was a government in Israel, not a single measly illegal outpost was removed; this is a non-government that has transformed the disengagement from Gaza from a national trauma to a housing trauma; and in Hebron, or in Mount Hebron to be more precise, the sovereign provides free protection to a bunch of hooligans.

Israel is trying at least to forge these empty sanctions, devoid of promise, into a symbol of national determination and pride. As if Israel, not Hamas, was the one who needed to mount a steadfast stand. The sanctions changed from a means to a status.

It suddenly seems that it is impossible to get rid of Hamas. Not only Abbas understands that early elections are liable to further erode his power and the power of his supporters. Arab states, which are pained by the Hamas election victory no less than Israel is, now fear new elections and are pushing for the establishment of a unity government. If such a government is formed, its platform will perhaps be a bit more moderate than the one presented during the elections, but it will still be more hard-line than the one Abbas proposes. Ultimately, Israel will find itself pitted against a government that includes Hamas, with a roundabout recognition of Israel. And what will Israel do then? Will it dance for joy over the fact that it managed to "bend" Hamas and then procrastinate for a year and a half until a new American administration takes office?

Israel is not only "celebrating" a year of sanctions now. It is also marking 40 years of occupation this year. The government of Israel, or at least the part of it that is not spending its time in investigators' offices, cannot allow another year of sanctions to pass and thus establish the foundations for the fifth decade of the occupation. Because if this government is, in any case, unable to offer a diplomatic alternative, perhaps it would be best to at least allow the Palestinians to breathe a little, to work a bit, and thus help to prepare a slightly less devastated Palestinian public for peace negotiations with a future Israeli government.


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