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.

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

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.

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.)