Nearly two months after the surprise victory of Hamas in Palestinian elections, U.S. and European government policy remains dangerously obsolete and in disarray. To make the best of a bad situation will require a new approach based more on what Hamas does than on the hateful things it says.
The United States and European Union nations are caught in the straight-jacket of their longstanding position: no contacts with Hamas (and hence no aid to the Palestinian Authority) until it renounces violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. Unfortunately, it is unrealistic to believe that Hamas will turn on a dime in the immediate aftermath of its election victory and publicly renounce its basic platform. This was demonstrated clearly in Hamas' recent meeting with the Russian government.
However, a cut-off in aid to the Hamas government could trigger the bankruptcy and collapse of the Palestinian Authority. This would create a chaotic and unpredictable situation of even greater unemployment, hunger and violence in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel would have to pick up the pieces by once again taking full control of Palestinian areas or live next to a failed state.
So the United States and its allies are scrambling to use "humanitarian aid" as a backdoor way to help the Palestinians. This cobbled together strategy is likely to produce the worst of both worlds: it will create little incentive for Hamas to behave, yet carry all of the risks and costs the U.S. and Europe are trying to avoid.
First, the Palestinian Authority would still be strapped for cash and unlikely to avoid bankruptcy without turning to other Muslim states for desperately needed assistance. But the wealthy Arab countries have been notoriously stingy with the Palestinians in the past and are unlikely to open their checkbooks if this is opposed by the United States. So the cutoff in aid could well push the Palestinians into the arms of Iran — giving Iran a foothold on the Mediterranean and making it an even bigger threat to Israel, Europe and the United States.
Second, even if humanitarian programs continue, stopping all official aid would still damage America's democratization efforts in the Middle East. Rather than viewing the cutoff as a response to Hamas' inflammatory constitution, the Arab street would see it as punishing a freely elected government, thus further undermining U.S. credibility as a champion of democracy.
Third, the official aid cut-off would be an enormous gift to Hamas, which could place the onus for all its failures on the United States.
Finally, leaving all aid to humanitarian groups would mean governments might have little leverage to respond to unacceptable Hamas actions.
This is not an argument for business as usual. That would be seen as surrendering to terrorism. This would encourage more deadly terrorists attacks on the United States, Israel and throughout the region. It would be touted as a victory for jihad.
What then, is the alternative? The place to start is with Hamas' behavior. During the recent election campaign, Hamas declared and maintained a unilateral cease-fire with Israel. And since its victory, Hamas has indicated it does not plan to resume violence against Israel in the near future. Hamas leaders say that their immediate priority is building a Palestinian state and improving living conditions of the Palestinian people.
No one knows if this is true or just a ruse before stepped-up violence against Israel. But over time actions will speak louder than words. Giving Hamas incentives, both positive and negative, to maintain its cease-fire with Israel would buy time for Hamas to retreat from its stated goal of destroying Israel.
Arguments that this is a golden opportunity to put maximum pressure on Hamas to change its declared policy toward Israel need to be weighed against an historical fact. After decades of pressure, the late Yasser Arafat and his Fatah organization finally used the right words in discussing Israel — ritually condemning terrorism and accepting the goal of Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace — but were never willing to turn the rhetoric into reality.
Neither Arafat nor President Mahmoud Abbas ever disarmed Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah's own Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades and other terrorist organizations that have killed hundreds of Israelis and wounded thousands more.
What is worse? A Palestinian government that preaches peace but can't deliver it? Or a Palestinian government that stands for the destruction of Israel but just might maintain an indefinite cease-fire?
To strengthen the cease-fire, existing official aid programs should continue, but only so long as Hamas does not attack Israel and keeps other groups from doing so. The level of assistance should be calibrated to Hamas' actions, such as their relations with Iran. However, any new programs to support the Palestinian Authority should be held in abeyance until the Hamas government renounces terror and accepts the legitimacy of Israel.
The election of a Hamas government confronts the United States with fateful strategic choices rivaled only by the decision to go into Iraq. This is a period of grave risk and only a narrow opportunity. All concerned need to seize this opportunity to interrupt the cycle of violence, lest it be said of them what former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban famously remarked about the Palestinians — that they "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."
© 2006 United Press International
David Aaron is director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, and a former U.S. diplomat who worked on Middle East peace issues including the Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt.
This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on March 15, 2006. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.