Sharon’s painful legacy

    In a way, Ariel Sharon has been proven wrong. In a way, Ariel Sharon has been proven right.

    Last summer, Israel’s prime minister relinquished all claims to Gaza.
    His decision to uproot Jewish communities and remove Israel’s military
    presence from a disputed territory sharply divided Israelis. Angry
    protests erupted in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The ruling Likud Party
    broke under the strain. There was even talk of civil war.

    Natan
    Sharansky, an Israeli politician and democracy activist _ not least on
    behalf of Arabs and Muslims _ was among those who opposed “unilateral
    disengagement” from Gaza. Palestinians, he said, would see the move as
    a victory for Hamas. It would vindicate Hamas’ claim that terrorism is
    the broom that can sweep the region clean of Jews once and for all.

    But Sharon also was correct: He recognized that Israel had no partner
    with whom it could make peace. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had
    turned out to be feckless, able to deliver nothing of value.

    With that in mind, Sharon determined to pursue a separate peace _ and a
    peace of separation. By getting out of Gaza and constructing a security
    fence along the West Bank, Sharon drew an armistice line that can be
    negotiated if and when the Palestinians have leaders seriously
    interested in ending the conflict.

    That Palestinians will not
    now have such leaders is beyond dispute. Hamas is a militant Islamist
    organization. Its ideology is indistinguishable from that of al Qaeda,
    even if its ambitions are currently limited to waging a violent jihad
    against “infidels” only on the battlefield between the Mediterranean
    Sea and the Jordan River. (Although, as scholar Daniel Pipes has noted,
    a recent Hamas children’s publication calls for parts of Spain to be
    returned to Muslim rule as well.)

    Hamas has close ties with
    Iran’s radical mullahs. And it is unambiguous in its enthusiasm for
    terrorism: It parades its children dressed up as suicide bombers.

    The annihilation of Israel is not merely Hamas’ negotiating posture. It
    is a deeply held religious conviction. Jews, Christians and moderate
    Muslims may not like Hamas’ interpretation of Islam. But we can’t just
    wish it away.

    Does that imply that progress toward peace is
    impossible in the near term? Of course it does. Nevertheless, this is a
    significant moment. Palestinian voters were given the opportunity to
    make a choice. Respecting that choice demands they now be given the
    chance to accept its consequences. To do otherwise would be to treat
    Palestinians as infants.

    Hamas will have authority. It must be
    saddled with responsibility as well. The United States and Europe say
    they will not fund a Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority until and
    unless Hamas recognizes Israel’s right to exist. So Hamas must either
    change or govern without Western aid and investment. But change _
    sincere change, not rhetorical change _ is difficult when policy is
    based on a religious obligation to raise “the banner of Allah over
    every inch of Palestine.”

    If Hamas seeks to replace Western
    funds for the Palestinian Authority with oil money from Iran or Saudi
    Arabia, so be it. Hamas already takes instructions from Tehran; bags
    full of dollars and euros won’t change that.

    And do the math:
    If an attack by Hamas leads Israel to destroy a Palestinian factory
    built with American or European cash, no militant Islamist anywhere in
    the world will mind. But if an attack by Hamas leads Israel to destroy
    a Palestinian factory built with Iranian or Saudi money, there might be
    some incentive for Iranian and Saudi donors to counsel restraint in the
    future.

    Hamas’ leaders are extremists, but they are not stupid.
    While Sharon lies in a coma, a new Israeli election campaign has begun.
    Aggressive moves by Hamas now would impact the political process in
    ways Hamas’ leaders may view as deleterious to their interests _ and
    their longevity.

    And an attack by Hamas after a new Israeli
    government is elected would probably bring about a more forceful
    response from Israel than was the case when a Fatah-led Palestinian
    Authority could claim it was powerless to control Hamas.

    For
    Hamas to say it can’t control Hamas will be more problematic. Though
    Ariel Sharon, were he up and about, would probably wager a few shekels
    that such an argument will be made _ and will be believed by many of
    the diplomats and politicians he has known.

    (Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)