The Magazine

Hobbling Hamas

Moving beyond the U.S. policy of Three No's.

Apr 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 27 • By ROBERT SATLOFF
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At the same time, the White House has thrown the dice on promoting elections as the first step in advancing Middle East democracy. With Islamists reaping the gains in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, the policy is looking like it might be a bad bet. Unless the "freedom agenda" produces a visible success soon--defined as an Islamist party that moderates in power--the president's legacy on his signature foreign policy theme will be in serious trouble.

So far, the administration has tried to reconcile these positions by condemning Hamas as a terrorist group but praising the democratic process by which Palestinian voters elevated it to power. It manages this balancing act by suggesting that Palestinian voters supported Hamas not because of its commitment to destroy Israel but only as a way to throw out the corrupt incumbents of Arafat's Fatah party and, as Bill Clinton recently said, to make the Palestinian buses run on time.

The problem with this view is that it has little basis in fact. Other parties on the ballot offered alternatives to Fatah, including the good-government Third Way, but Hamas won 74 seats and the squeaky-clean liberals just 2. Indeed, it is an uncomfortable truth that an absolute majority of Palestinians voted for parties publicly committed to the destruction of Israel--Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. To suggest that Palestinians were oblivious to the political meaning of their votes is, as President Bush has argued in a different context, the soft bigotry of low expectations.

In practical terms, Washington's current policy--deny Hamas diplomatic recognition and U.S. financial aid but otherwise do little to arrest its growing hold on power--is an effort to have it both ways. In the end, it will achieve nothing. The policy does not pack enough wallop to undercut Hamas. Since Arab, Muslim, and even Western states are likely to fill in for lost U.S. aid, there is little chance that the policy will entice Hamas to come to terms with the legitimacy of Israel.

Already, the international consensus in support of the administration's three conditions has cracked. Russia was the first to break ranks, hosting a Hamas delegation in Moscow. Since then, such strategic partners as Turkey, a member of NATO, and Qatar, home to the largest U.S. air base in the Persian Gulf, have put out the welcome mat for Hamas, too.

When European powers begin to deal with Hamas, as they almost certainly will after Israel's election scheduled for March 28, the likely result of U.S. policy will be America's isolation, not the isolation of Hamas.

So Washington should get off the fence and decide what its strategic objective toward Hamas really is.

My own view is that Hamas's success poses such a threat to vital U.S. interests that we should do everything possible to abort Hamas rule. We should do this as quickly and peacefully as circumstances allow. We should work both openly and clandestinely with allies and partners who share our concern. The U.S. interest is not that Hamas slowly wither on the vine. That would require many years of containment, during which Hamas could foil our efforts by tightening its grip on power as the ayatollahs have in Iran. To the contrary, the U.S. interest is that Hamas collapse speedily and spectacularly.

Israel's role is critical. Jerusalem controls virtually the entire Palestinian economy and provides access into the Palestinian territories for all goods. Israel has the right to sever all economic ties with Gaza so as not to be responsible for sustaining Hamas rule; a case can be made that Israel is even duty-bound to prevent the emergence of a terrorist regime on territory it controls. (Israel has no role inside Gaza; in the West Bank, its troops operate relatively unfettered.) If Israel chooses to choke off a Hamas government, Washington should stand with Jerusalem.

But, critics will say, targeting the Hamas-led PA with punitive measures would punish the Palestinian people. That's right. If Hamas had come to power via a military coup, then it would be wrong to impose sanctions on the Palestinian people. But Hamas has come to power precisely because Palestinian voters chose it. If this isn't a moment when the populace itself should bear the repercussions of its actions, then what is? And isn't it more humane to level a swift blow than to inflict a thousand slow and painful cuts?