Hamas' Victory of Deterrence

The debate now in Israel is when to confront Hamas: soon, at the cost of a military campaign, in the hopes of restoring Fatah to power - but this time, the younger and less corrupt generation.

A week before the elections, the security tension is rising: Will the Israeli home front be hit by a major terror attack on the eve of the voting, or will another seven days pass with the continued effective combination of Hamas' restraint and preventive efforts by the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Defense Forces? Aside from the fear of loss of life, at the root of this tension lies the assumption that a mass-casualty attack could affect the results of the elections.

Having trained the Israeli political and security establishment to base its decisions on this assumption is a huge victory for Hamas - specifically, for its deterrent capability vis-a-vis the Israeli leadership, without the need to commit even a single new attack. The cumulative memory of past attacks, especially those that preceded the 1996 elections, is sufficient.

This bizarre case of bird flu - hawks who have suddenly become doves - that has broken out among the Likud (now Kadima) government was caused by the proximity and order of the political timetables - the Palestinian elections at the end of January, and the Israeli ones at the end of March. Had the Israeli elections taken place as scheduled, in November 2006, or had they taken place before the Palestinian vote, the government might have displayed more determination in its handling of the two forces that defeated it and brought Hamas to power - the organization's ability to end the "lull" that it imposed on itself in early 2005, and U.S. policy, which refused to set threshold conditions for Hamas' participation in the elections similar to those that it is demanding of the organization now, when it is already too late (recognition of Israel, eschewing terror, honoring the Palestinian Authority's commitments).

After Hamas ended its debate over whether to run in the elections in the fall of 2005, and Amir Peretz's victory over Shimon Peres led Labor to quit the government and caused the elections to be brought forward to March, Ariel Sharon (until January 4), Ehud Olmert (thereafter) and Shaul Mofaz feared that if the Palestinian elections were canceled, or if Hamas were banned from running, the organization would carry out its threat to end the lull. The result would have been two difficult months of terror attacks that could have ruined Kadima's electoral prospects. Thus, to the achievements of the Muslim resistance - Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and others in Palestine - in strengthening the "awareness of the struggle" that is pushing Israel into withdrawals, must be added the victory of deterrence as well.

And this is not the Israeli leadership's only failure in the face of enemy deterrence: In Amona, opponents of further withdrawals also built up power that could deter the government from evacuating outposts and settlements.

In order to evade responsibility for Israel's contribution to Hamas' victory, officials in Jerusalem are griping about the Palestinians' electoral system. It is convenient to forget two facts: The district system, which has allowed large minorities of voters to become a majority in the legislature from Britain to Palestine, was lavishly praised by David Ben-Gurion as the unachievable object of his dreams; and strengthening the prime minister as a counterweight to the PA president was an Israeli and U.S. step taken during the days of Yasser Arafat, with Mahmoud Abbas in the role of prime minister.

The debate now in Israel is when to confront Hamas: soon, at the cost of a military campaign, in the hopes of restoring Fatah to power - but this time, the younger and less corrupt generation; or in another year or more, after a period of comparative quiet, but at the cost of a dangerous build-up in Palestinian strength. Until Israel goes to war against a Hamas-led Palestine, National Security Advisor Giora Eiland hinted during the recent AIPAC conference at one possible alternative - removing Gaza from the customs union with the West Bank, such that it would become a separate unit from that formed by Israel and the West Bank.

For the next week, until the elections, Israel and the PA still appear to be traveling along the same road. That is true, but misleading, because Hamas is like that drunk driver from Hadera who sped along the Coastal Highway in the wrong lane: The journey is guaranteed to end in a fatal crash, unless Hamas either sobers up, overturns or discovers that it has run out of gas.