HERZLIYA, ISRAEL—On successive nights last week, Israel’s three candidates took the same stage during what could prove a defining moment in the brief history of the Jewish state—in the wake of Ariel Sharon’s stroke and, as the world would soon learn, on the eve of Hamas winning the Palestinian elections.
The event each candidate addressed was the Herzliya Conference, Israel’s premier security and counterterrorism gathering, and the audience was populated with elites from the tiny nation’s business, military, and political communities. At events of this kind, the best information is not gleaned from the speeches, but rather from the gossip dished in hushed tones and the relaxed conversations in the hotel lobby.
This was no exception.
In the weeks since Sharon’s stroke ushered in Ehud Olmert as acting prime minister, the media and most political insiders have been betting that the sympathy factor might be enough to propel Israel’s temporary leader to victory in the March elections. The only candidate with a shot to defeat him, in the opinion of attendees, is former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as almost everyone agreed that Labor candidate Amir Peretz, who enjoyed a honeymoon after a primary victory just weeks ago, has zero chance of winning.
Almost everyone at the conference believes that several X-factors could emerge in the next month and a half that could substantially alter the playing field. Soothsaying primarily revolved around: 1) terror attacks and Olmert’s response, and 2) whether or not Sharon passes. If Sharon dies between now and the election, the sympathy clock for Olmert could reset to zero. Of course, if Olmert appears weak in the face of terror attacks—as Peres did against a series of bombings leading up to the 1996 election—then security hawk Netanyahu could benefit, just as he did a decade ago.
If Netanyahu does win, Israel’s next steps might resemble the vision laid out by Yitzhak Rabin in October 1995—one month before his assassination. In a speech low on style, but high on substance, Netanyahu made a pitch for “defensible borders,” the initiative started last year by his ambassador to the United Nations, Dore Gold. In essence, the plan would uproot illegal outposts, but maintain settlement blocks, the sparsely populated Jordan Valley, and all other areas vital for security. It is modeled on a blueprint Rabin gave in a speech to the Israeli Knesset.
But one of the variables discussed at length by attendees—Hamas winning the vote for the Palestinian legislature—happened just after the event ended, putting on hold any talk about Israel’s revisions of its borders.
Not clear yet is what the election of an avowed terrorist organization into the seat of government means from either a security or political standpoint, though discussed by many just before the balloting began was if it might not be, in fact, in Israel’s interest to have Hamas running the Palestinian Authority.
While Israel, the US, and even the EU all expressed varying degrees of dismay at the Hamas victory, the counterintuitive thinking at the conference was that Israel now has a freer hand to act in self-defense, while politically Olmert could—and stress could—seize an opportunity to appear tougher on security than he otherwise would have had had Fatah won.
With Fatah, the dilemma for Israel had been that it was forced to engage in a “peace” process, the so-called road map, with an entity that professed a desire for peace, while at the same time directing suicide attacks carried out by its wholly-owned subsidiary, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is even more bloodthirsty than Hamas. Yet every time Israel would respond to a terror attack from al-Aqsa or any other group, it would get dinged for “perpetuating the cycle of violence.”
Worse, because Fatah had repeatedly “committed” to the road map, Israel had been funding the Palestinian Authority, which by definition meant support for the infrastructure Arafat built. In short, the Jewish state was paying for the bombs used to kill its own citizens. At the least, Hamas’ ascension halts that perversion—for now.
Contacted for comment after the elections results became clear (a day and a half after Olmert’s speech closed the conference), even those who had predicted Hamas’ triumph had mixed emotions. While few Israeli leaders buy into the fiction that Hamas might be forced to moderate when saddled with the burden of actual governance—Fatah didn’t, which was the rationale for Sharon’s shift toward unilateralism—the general thinking is that Hamas will not likely ramp up violence in the short-term.
The question most ask, though, is not whether, but how much, having newfound power will strengthen Hamas’ hand. Asked one Netanyahu supporter, “Will Hamas stockpile like Hezbollah, and only strike after they’ve lulled the US, the EU, and even Israel into complacency?”
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