Mr. Obama, Grant Hamas the Freedom to Fail

As you view the Mideast, bear in mind that settler outposts are the Qassams of the Jews.

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Mr. President, a couple of off-the-record observations as you take the oath:

In the Mideast equation, settler outposts are the Qassams of the Jews

Outposts are tools. They are bargaining chips of great weight. They are potent, if also self-defeating symbols of nationalist assertion. They are sacrosanct to religious fundamentalists. Most importantly, and most potently, they are meant to cripple the possibility of peace.

Mr. President, quietly encourage Israel to carry out its own longstanding policy of removing illegal settlement outposts. At this point, it is the one step that Israel can take, to bring it materially closer to an eventual negotiated peace with the Palestinians.

There will be many of your constituents on the Jewish and evangelical right who will tell you that illegal outposts, and settlements in general, promote peace and anchor security.

In fact, so ingrained has that mantra become in right-religious circles within Judaism as a whole, that at the height of the recent war, Michael Freund, a former aide to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, earned rave rightist reader responses by

"This is not to imply a moral equivalence between the two. Just the opposite."

As Freund himself implies, there are distinct similarities. The fact is, that along with their status as lethal civilian-targeting weapons and thus war crimes, outposts and illegal settlements are tools. They are bargaining chips of great weight. They are potent, if self-defeating symbols of national assertion. They are sacrosanct to religious fundamentalists. Most importantly, and most potently, they are meant to cripple the possibility of peace.

Mr. President, when the current smoke clears and a new prime minister takes office, quietly and persuasively urge Israel to act in its own interest, to crack down on illegal settlement outposts and to freeze new construction.

The more it does, the stronger Israel's hand will be in negotiations with the Palestinians. It is a recognition of how destructive illegal settlement, and illegal settlers, have been to the cause of peace.

You will be acting within the Israeli consensus, and fostering an act that could prompt new momentum, and a clearer atmosphere, for peace progress downstream.

Evicting illegal settlers flies in the face of the anti-Israel narrative and the contention that all that Israel really desires is land, not peace.

Grant Hamas the freedom to fail

In the often acrid debate over how best to deal with Hamas, a curiously unifying theme has underscored arguments across the whole of the political spectrum, from the hardline Jewish right to the anti-Israel left: In its war in Gaza, Israel has played directly into Hamas' hands.

A contention as old as Hamas, now entering its second generation, it remains a argument with a great deal of validity. In fact, its validity predates Hamas itself.

It held as early as the 1970s, when Israel began to effectively foster Hamas' precursor, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin's ostensibly apolitical Gaza-based branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. It held for much of the 1980s, when IDF Civil Administration occupation officials hoped to see Yassin's social welfare institutions.

It held when Israel spared Hamas institutions in Gaza in the early years of the Second Intifada, battering into oblivion key institutions of Yasser Arafat's Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and bolstering Gazans' reliance on Hamas for education, health care, and other basic social services.

It held when Israel, in effect, acted as Hamas' campaign manager for the Hamas-Fatah elections in 2006, and has since refused to recognize Hamas, blockaded Gaza, and simultaneously denigrated Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority.

The axiom also holds that every Israeli shell is a vote for Hamas, and every thousand pound bomb 10,000 votes. There is every reason to believe that the adage is as true as ever.

One can also rely on Hamas to hold fast as long and hard as it can to the three 'R's that distinguish it from Fatah: No renunciation of violence, no recognition of Israel, and rejection of prior Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

At the same time, recent history has shown time and again that there is one factor to which Hamas is acutely sensitive and responsive: Palestinian public opinion. Hamas' willingness to agree to a short-term truce, as well as public statements on negotiating with the Israel it refuses to recognize, have made it clear that what appear to be ironclad principles may be subject to reinterpretation.

Swift and unequivocal as Hamas' proclamations of victory have been, the true test of the movement's strength, and, most critically, its ability to govern and thus sway core Palestinian sentiment, is yet to come.

Hamas' future now depends not on the ability to withstand an Israeli onslaught, but on its ability to manage the re-opening of Gaza's border crossings in an extremely timely fashion, and the degree of its success in securing financing and carrying out a rebuilding program for which, in a pre-recorded victory address by Ismail Haniyeh, it has now taken formal responsibility.

As my colleague Avi Issacharoff has noted, Haniyeh's Sunday victory address contained significant concessions relative to an uncompromisingly tough speech by Hamas political department chief Khaled Meshal in Damascus not 24hours before. Meshal had ruled out a cease-fire and set a strikingly high bar for a truce - saying all IDF troops had to leave the Strip before Palestinians would cease fire - while Haniyeh hinted at steps toward rapprochement with Fatah and said Hamas and other groups would bide their time for a week before an IDF pullout.

There is no reason to believe that anger at Israel will subside. But there is every reason to believe that Gazans' patience with Hamas will run out.

Ironically, the same casualty statistics that Hamas has used to catalyze rage with Israel may also give Gazans second thoughts about Hamas. On Monday, Hamas said that only 48 of the 1,300 Gazans killed in the war were its armed men.

How, in the end, are Gazans to square that with Hamas statements prior to the war - and with Hamas' martyrdom ideology over the decades - in which the movement vowed that its fighters would defend the soil of Palestine and the lives of Gazans with their very blood, in the process, turning the Strip into a graveyard for the IDF.

As it was, Hamas, having altered its strategy and tactics under the relatively recent guidance of Iran, Syria and other advisors, abandoned its once-standard practice of sending armed men against the IDF in what amounted to suicide missions, to fight until death.

As a consequence, it remains unclear how much of their martyr-hero credibility can still be marketed to a Gaza public in critical need of social services.

Halima Dardouna, 37, from the northern city of Jabaliya, whose house was destroyed by an Israeli shell, told The New York Times in a Monday article that both Fatah and Hamas were to blame because of their rivalry, "and we are the victims."

"I will never vote for Hamas," she continued. "They are not able to protect the people, and if they are going to bring this on us, why should they be in power? If I thought they could liberate Jerusalem, I would be patient. But instead they bring this."

This is where the U.S. in particular and the Quartet as a whole can have an impact. Hamas needs the border crossings open. Neither Egypt nor Israel are keen to open their crossings. The bridge is Washington, which can play a mediation role that can change the history of the Strip.

The people of Gaza need the government of the United States to help them. At this point, Hamas does as well.

Take advantage. Don't allow Israel to play into Hamas' hands once more. Find the formula which will allow for the arrangement both Israelis and Gazans seek: Open border crossings, and a true end to rocket attacks.

Put Hamas to the test. For too long they have been able to blame misrule on Israeli interference. Play into the hands of peace. Grant Hamas the freedom to fail.


Previous blogs:

In Gaza's shadow: Obama's inaugural messageGaza War Diary IV - Can people die of ambivalence?A Jew's prayer for the children of Gaza Gaza War Diary III: If Mexico shelled Texas, like Hamas shells IsraelGaza 2009 - To win, all Israel has to do is survive Gaza War Diary II - Who speaks for the Gazans?Gaza War Diary I - Wartime in Gaza: The worst anti-Israel charges you'll hear Can the First Gaza War be stopped before it starts?The Madoff betrayal: Life imitates anti-Semitism Hebron, Feiglin, and the self-hating Jews of the right