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Ascent of Hamas may be a blessing

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -- Like its patron, the United States, Israel has specialized in making all the possible errors in approaching its Arab neighbors. Hence the serious impasses Israel drives itself into, at times when it follows the American example and at other times when it is left to go its own way. In either case, neither the United States nor Israel seems to be able to learn from its mistakes in order to avoid repeating them - the underlying assumption being that if we entertain honesty in the negotiations and state our good intentions, so will the Arab side.

So, the hurried Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 generated the second Lebanese war in 2006; the far-reaching concessions to Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000 produced the second intifada and the Israel Arabs' revolt inside Israel; the unilateral retreat from Gaza in 2005 brought about the Hamas takeover of the Palestinian people in 2006; and the second Lebanese war in 2006 precipitated Hezbollah-Hamas-Iran rule over the Gaza Strip.

All this is happening while we are captive of the unfounded distinction between the "moderate" Palestine Liberation Organization and "extremist" Hamas, at the same time that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has never retracted his denial of the Holocaust, has remained true to the PLO Charter that does not recognize the right of self-determination for the Jewish people, and has allowed his Al-Aqsa Brigades, which report to the PLO, to commit half the terrorist activities against Israel in the past few years.

All this while, Palestinian media and textbooks have continued to spread hatred against Israel and the Jews, but Israel pursued transfers of arms to Mr. Abbas and allowed American training and arms supplies to the same PLO forces that have turned their weapons against Israel. Worst of all, we have maintained the misplaced appellation of "moderates" to those people. The supreme test of Mr. Abbas was the day Cpl. Gilad Shalit was kidnapped and incarcerated in the Gaza Strip. At the time, had Mr. Abbas had the political will to do so, he had enough power to overwhelm the Hamas-linked kidnappers, to search for Corporal Shalit door to door and to return him home, eliminate the rocket launching against Israel and defuse the tension along the border. Instead, he joined Hamas in demanding a price for the release of Corporal Shalit. But his "moderate" image was not tarnished in the least.

Between these two terrorist organizations (Hamas and the PLO), the latter is not necessarily better for Israel. For under Israel's sponsorship, Mr. Abbas became the darling of Europe and the United States, and though his troops practiced terrorism without relent, Israel was prevented from retaliating lest the "moderate" Mr. Abbas be weakened or lose his tenuous grip on power. The fact that he never lifted a finger against terror when he was capable of doing so, except when his own power was in danger, only lent prominence to the impotence of his rule. Israel had to exercise restraint over many months and years in the face of continued terror and shelling of rockets from the very spots it had abandoned during the irresponsible retreat from Gaza, and no solution was seen in sight.

Now that Hamas has taken over in Gaza, there are no longer any holy cows that can curb Israeli retaliation. Therefore, if Hamas does not internalize its responsibility for the lives of its citizens and pursues terrorism, to which Israel will have to respond harshly, at the very least no one will reproach Israel for exercising "excessive force" or for hurting the chances of a peace negotiation.

Why should Israel rush to align itself with the United States and Europe and declare that it would support "moderate" Mr. Abbas and remove all obstacles before him? This is a blunt interference in Palestinian affairs. They have chosen Hamas in a free election, and they have to bear the consequences of their choice.

Now a new Palestinian entity has been established in Gaza, by the very people who won the majority in the last elections. Israel should wish it all the best, recognize it as the much-coveted Palestinian state, and pledge to cooperate with it, open our borders to goods and labor, and promote good neighborly relations in general - as long as the Palestinians return Corporal Shalit, cease the bombings and acts of terror against Israel and put an end to weapon smuggling.

It is not our business what sort of regime they have, as long as they conduct themselves as peaceful and cooperative neighbors. Then, our argument with the Palestinians is only about the borders of their country, not its coming into being. But if they should misbehave, a total Israeli siege ought to bring them to terms.

Raphael Israeli is a professor of Islamic history at Hebrew University, Jerusalem. His e-mail is

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