The Ultimate Irony: Hamas and the Israeli Politik

By Jason Hicks – Jerusalem

Until 2006, the Israeli-Palestinian political landscape was dominated almost exclusively by three major players: the Labor and Likud parties in Israel, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) largest faction, Fatah. That year brought a dramatic change, however, with the success of Israel’s newly formed Kadima party in the elections for the 17th Knesset and of Hamas in the Palestinian legislative elections.

Since Hamas won a plurality of seats in January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, Israel has refused to negotiate with the democratically elected Palestinian government, deeming Hamas a terrorist organization which includes in its founding charter a statement calling for the elimination of Israel. Throughout most of its existence, however, Hamas has also provided humanitarian programs, including extensive welfare and social services in the Palestinian occupied territories, and in April 2008, Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal offered implicit recognition of Israel if it withdraws from the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. “We have offered a truce if Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders, a truce of 10 years as a proof of recognition,” said Meshal—the target of a botched 1997 Israeli assassination attempt in Amman. Hamas has also said it would abide by any peace deal with Israel, as long as the agreement is approved by the Palestinian people in a referendum.

One would assume that those criticizing Hamas for not accepting the right of Israel to exist would not only support the right of Palestinians to live in the West Bank and Gaza, but would also support an independent Palestinian state. Ironically, this is not the case. The charter of the Likud party, which is in a two-way race with Kadima to win the Feb. 10 parliamentary elections, clearly rejects a two-state solution and unequivocally calls for annexing, settling and developing all of “Greater Israel,” which according to fundamentalist Jews incorporates both the West Bank and Gaza. Thus, in calling for the elimination of Arab Palestine, the Likud party’s vision of historic Palestine is in effect a mirror image of Hamas’ from an Israeli perspective. Indeed, since 1977 Likud-led governments have attempted to transfer this ideology into on-the-ground reality in the occupied Palestinian territories and have facilitated the greatest increases in Israeli settlement growth in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. During periods of Likud leadership (1977-84, 1986-92, 1996-99 and 2001-05), more than 90 new settlements were constructed to further the Greater Israel ideology and Judaize the West Bank.

From the creation of the state in 1948 until 1977, Israel’s Labor party, including its predecessors the Mapai and Alignment parties, was the single major player in Israeli politics. Historically, it has been a champion of Social Zionism and was one of the earliest proponents of the settler initiative. In contrast to Likud’s religious justification, Labor’s drive for Jewish colonization of the Palestinian territories arises from a secular, security-based agenda. Both parties, however, advance their goal of an expanded Israeli state by creating facts on the ground in the form of settlement construction and settler immigration.

Following the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel conquered and occupied the Palestinian territories, Labor governments have authorized the construction of nearly 50 settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. New settlement construction continued during the Oslo process in the 1990s under the Labor administrations of Yitzhak Rabin (1992-1995), Shimon Peres (1995-1996) and Ehud Barak (1999-2000). In all, the settler population grew by more than 163,000 between 1993, the beginning of the Oslo period, and 2004—a 63 percent increase.

Historically, the Labor party platform contained a clause rejecting the possibility of an independent Palestinian state. The platform was altered in 1997, and that terminology was replaced with the words, “we do not rule out…the establishment of a Palestinian state with limited sovereignty.” It is important to recognize that not ruling out a Palestinian state is not synonymous with supporting a Palestinian state, as some have implied. Further, “limited sovereignty” by definition rules out the possibility of a completely autonomous Palestinian state.

Further constraints on Palestinian sovereignty are clearly defined in the Labor party platform, including the declaration that “The Jordan River will be Israel’s eastern security border and there will be no other army stationed to the west of it.” The Palestinians unquestionably view the Jordan River as the eastern border of the West Bank and of a potential Palestinian state. Further, indefinite Israeli control of the Jordan River would result in a Palestinian state completely encompassed by a militarily dominant Israeli state. This is an unacceptable scenario for an independent nation, particularly one having endured more than four decades of occupation. Clearly, past and present Labor party doctrine, combined with its historical support of settlement construction and settler emigration into Palestine, indicates a lack of authentic support for a two-state solution and a desire to create an Israeli state incorporating the Palestinian territories.

Since winning a plurality of seats in the 2006 Knesset elections, the Kadima party has headed Israel’s governing coalition. It was formed in 2005, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon left the Likud party to establish a party that would allow him to carry out his Unilateral Disengagement Plan. Although created under the guise of removing Israeli settlements from Gaza, Kadima also has fundamental ties to the Greater Israel concept. According to the party platform, “The Israeli nation has a national and historic right to the whole of Israel. However, in order to maintain a Jewish majority, part of the Land of Israel must be given up to maintain a Jewish and democratic state.”

Statements by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Sharon’s successor as party leader, echo this dichotomy. In a cabinet meeting last fall Olmert declared, “‘Greater Israel’ is finished. There is no such thing as that anymore. Whoever talks in those terms is only deluding himself.” In 2006, however, he told the United States Congress, “I believed, and to this day still believe, in our people’s eternal and historic right to this entire land.”

Kadima’s contradictory position on the Land of Israel parallels the often-criticized dichotomy of Hamas’ call for the elimination of Israel and their stated support of a long-term truce. Kadima supports a "demilitarized" Palestinian state in the short-term (as does Hamas towards an Israeli state) to preserve a Jewish majority, but in the long-term believes fundamentally, as stated in the Torah, that Jews have a right to all of the Land of Israel. Therefore, if demographic realities change in Israel’s favor or the geo-political situation in the future allows for them to take control of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel will do so because it is their religious right to occupy all of the Land of Israel. 

Not only do these paradoxes bring into question the veracity of Kadima’s commitment to a long-term, sovereign Palestinian state, but the facts on the ground speak for themselves. According to the Israeli Interior Ministry, under Kadima the Jewish population in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, grew by 14,000—from 268,000 at the end of 2006 to 282,000 at the end of 2007. This 5.2 percent increase is over five times the immigration rate of Jews into Israel during the same time period. Furthermore, immediately before the November 2007 Annapolis summit, the Israeli government announced the future construction of nearly 8,000 apartments and homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. By contrast, only 1,600 units were built from 2002-2006, indicating a six times greater growth since Annapolis than during the previous four years. This extensive settlement development is in stark contrast with Olmert’s declaration that Israel must withdraw from “nearly all” of the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, to achieve peace. The concept of Greater Israel evidently is alive and well in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The election of Tzipi Livni (characterized by many as a dove) as head of Kadima was thought by many to be a positive step toward peace. However, the basis for this assumption is unclear, particularly given her unabashed support and participation in the War on Gaza. Additionally, as Israel’s minister of housing and construction in 2004, Livni personally reviewed and issued tenders for the construction of 1,001 new housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Her direct role in settlement expansion and advancing the Greater Israel ideology in occupied Palestine should not be a surprise, given her recent statement during an interview with former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that “the peace process is not and should not be affected by any settlement activities.” Livni’s actions and language are hardly that of a “dove” and strongly bring into question her sincerity in supporting a genuine two-state solution.

Palestinian voters elected Hamas nearly three years ago in large part because of their frustration with the corrupt and ineffective Fatah leadership. As has been seen, however, Hamas has indicated its willingness to support a two-state solution with Israel on its pre-’67 border, despite constant Israeli military incursions into Gaza (prior to the War on Gaza) and a dire humanitarian situation in the besieged Palestinian territory. By contrast, all of Israel’s major parties are committed to the ideology of a Greater Israel—an ideology they implement with illegal facts on the ground.

The ultimate irony of the 2009 Knesset elections could be Israelis’ choice of Binyamin Netanyahu (Likud) as their next prime minister—the very man who occupied that position in 1997, and presumably ordered the assassination of Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal.

– Jason Hicks works for the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA) in Jerusalem. He contributed this article to (A version of this article was recently published in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2009 issue.)

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