The strategies of Ariel Sharon and Hamas are far less irrational than portrayed by American media. Each has been cooperating in what amounts to a tacit alliance to achieve a shared goal: the elimination of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority and its replacement by Hamas. Israel's announcement that it will not deal with the PLO any more is only one part of this process.
Ariel Sharon has never hidden his contempt for the Oslo Accord, precisely because it aimed to create a Palestinian state in the pre-1967 borders of the West Bank and Gaza. When campaigning, he presented himself as the strong military man who could play the role of peacemaker. But he always reassured his own right-wing constituents that he had no intention of ceding any land to Palestinians.
Sharon was the inventor of the strategy of filling the West Bank with settlements in the 1980s to prevent any possibility of Palestinians creating their own state. His fondest dream would be to find the political excuses that could allow Israel to reoccupy the entire West Bank and establish another hundred settlements.
Arafat represented a thorn in his side, because Arafat kept insisting on returning to negotiations and on building the Palestinian state promised in the treaty Israel had signed in the White House garden in 1993. Moreover, the United States has made it clear that it wants Arafat in power and negotiations in place so that Arab leaders can say to their own populations: "See, our cooperation with the United States against Osama bin Laden has produced a return to the peace process." But continued conflict in the region allows Arab elites to displace resentment against the injustices of their own undemocratic societies onto anger at Israel. So they seek a balance: continued negotiations and an endless peace process, but not the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
When the United States became preoccupied with the war against terror, Sharon felt free to increase the violence and repression of the occupation and to accelerate the assassinations of those "suspected" of being directly or indirectly connected to acts of terror. Those assassinations, primarily directed against Hamas leaders, ensured that Hamas would strike back in retaliatory blows against civilian targets within Israel.
Instead of striking back against Hamas, Israel instead has used Hamas attacks as justification to destroy the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority and to debate what would be the best moment to kill Arafat. With Arafat dead and the Palestinian Authority in shambles, Hamas would become the prevailing force in the Palestinian world -- and the image of the Palestinians would then be more like that of the Taliban. Sharon would be able to portray Israel as fighting the same fight as the United States -- a battle against terrorists -- a move he has tried with less success against Arafat. With Hamas in charge of the Palestinian camp, Sharon could rally much broader support, because even those of us who support Palestinian rights would be forced to admit that a Hamas-dominated Palestine would be a real threat not only to Israel, but also to world peace.
Hamas has much to gain as well. Convinced that the peace process is betraying Islamic claims to Palestine, Hamas is willing to wait another 30 or 40 years until Israel tires of endless war and terror -- if, that is, it can be assured that when Israel tires, fundamentalists will come to power. Hamas despises the secular forces around Arafat, and worries that if the Palestinian Authority is not destroyed it could become the government of a secular Palestinian state. Hamas is openly contemptuous of the many Christian Palestinians who influence the Palestinian Authority.
So it is hard for Hamas to resist the open invitation from Ariel Sharon: Israel will do the dirty work of destroying the Palestinian Authority and rejecting any peace process if Hamas does its part by blowing up innocent Israeli civilians.
Sharon refuses to negotiate unless there is a period of non-violence, thereby signaling to Hamas forces that all they have to do to block negotiations is to escalate their terror. And if the violence gets intense enough, Sharon will find himself "with no alternative" but to kill Arafat and wipe out the Palestinian Authority.
This position, of course, creates an overwhelming incentive for Hamas to engage in acts of terror.
Washington could break this cycle by threatening economic sanctions until Israel ends the occupation. I won't hold my breath. More likely, it will demand new negotiations, which will drag on endlessly and give a new facelift to endless perpetuation of the occupation and the suffering of the Palestinian people.
There is only one way for Arafat and the moderates to protect themselves from this invidious alliance: unequivocally reject the fantasy of armed struggle against Israel and convert to the principled non-violence of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Instead of supporting or condoning any form of violence, engage in massive non-violent demonstrations, punish rock-throwers, and refuse to respond to the ongoing violence of the Israeli occupation with further violence. Otherwise, moderates may soon find themselves the victims of an all-too-clever path that links fundamentalists on both sides. But I won't hold my breath for this course, either.
Sharon is banking on America's focus on bin Laden to distract attention from the level of brutality Israeli forces are using in the West Bank and ensure that he will have political space to escalate his attacks on the Palestinian Authority.
Unless we speak out clearly and quickly to reject his unholy, if tacit, alliance with Hamas, the resulting chaos will likely produce ever more frightful bin Ladens in the future -- and they are as likely to strike America as Israel. For those of us who support Israel, this is a moment when our voices of critique may provide the "tough love" it so desperately needs.
(c) Copyright PNS