How Hamas controls the Israeli government.

How you look at things.
April 18 2002 4:31 PM

My Sharon

How Hamas controls the Israeli government.

Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon 

Last September, when terrorists struck the United States, some commentators attributed the attacks to provocative American policies in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. The problem with that analysis, Frame Game argued, was that "as long as [a terrorist] decides which of your acts will earn you a beating, he's the master, and you're the slave." Instead of worrying about what consequences terrorists might impose on us, Frame Game proposed, we should impose consequences on terrorists and their sponsors.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

This is the logic Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon espouses in his war on terrorism. Sharon says Palestinian terrorists have been attacking Israel in order to bully him into offering concessions at the bargaining table. Accordingly, he has made the cessation of violence a prerequisite to political talks. By laying down that condition, Sharon thinks he's reasserting Israeli control of the chain of consequences. But the consequence to which he has committed himself—refusing to negotiate—helps the terrorists more than it hurts them. Sharon isn't controlling the terrorists. They're controlling him.

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When he took office a year ago, Sharon declared that Palestinian President Yasser Arafat "must understand, first and foremost, that he will gain nothing from violence. Israel will not negotiate while Israeli civilians and soldiers are under fire." Sharon refused to hold talks with the Palestinians until they abstained from violence for 10 straight days. Under pressure from the United States, Sharon cut the demand to seven days, then dropped it entirely, but only for discussions about a cease-fire. Discussions about the shape of a Palestinian state would have to wait, he said. "Peace negotiations can commence and move forward only after terrorism has ceased," Sharon reaffirmed on April 8."

If the terrorists wanted those negotiations to move forward, Sharon's policy would make sense. But they don't. Don't take my word for it. Take Israel's. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs catalogs the worst suicide bombings perpetrated since December, when the current wave of terrorism began. Of the six attacks documented during that period, the ministry attributes five to Hamas. "The teachings of HAMAS utterly reject the peace process, which involves the surrender of 'Islamic land' and the recognition of Israel's right to exist on this land," says the ministry's most recent background paper on Hamas, dated September 1998. "HAMAS has recently become the moving spirit among those opposed to the peace process." The ministry's FAQ on terrorism, dated January 2002, adds,

According to [Osama bin Laden's] world-view, any progress in the Arab-Israeli peace process actually constitutes a threat to the success of the Jihad. Similarly, the radical Islamic terrorist organizations of the Palestinian camp (i.e., the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad) carried out an unprecedented wave of terrorist attacks against Israel in the years 1995-1996, a time when the Israel-Palestinian peace process was at its height, in an attempt to torpedo any reconciliation.

Sharon claims that Arafat has formed a "coalition of terror" that includes Hamas. But Sharon never explains how the coalition would use negotiations to achieve its ends or why Hamas would reverse itself and accept that approach. Nor does any of the evidence publicized by Israel about Arafat's direct involvement in terrorism link him to Hamas.

On the contrary, Israel's calendar of Hamas attacks shows a familiar pattern. The current wave of bombings began on Dec. 1 and Dec. 2, 2001, when 26 people were killed and more than 200 wounded in a pair of bombings just as U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni was beginning his first push for peace talks. On March 9, less than 48 hours after President Bush announced that he would send Zinni back to the Middle East, Hamas killed another 11 Israelis and injured 54 in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. On March 27, just as U.S. officials were boasting of an imminent cease-fire agreement, a Hamas bomber massacred 28 more Israelis in Netanya.

Sharon professes mystification at the pattern: "We cooperated with US envoy Anthony Zinni, and we received terror in return. We cooperated with US Vice President Dick Cheney, and we received terror in return. … All we received in return for our efforts was terror, terror and more terror." Earth to Sharon! Have you considered that there might be a connection?

If, as some doves believe, Arafat wants peace, the obvious upshot is that Sharon should continue to negotiate with him despite the Hamas attacks. But what if Arafat doesn't doesn't want peace? What if, as Sharon maintains, Arafat has used peace talks as a front to disguise terrorism, "isolate Israel in the international arena," and prevent the world from "discovering the real Arafat"? The question answers itself. If that tactic has been working so well for Arafat, Sharon shouldn't just complain about it. He should copy it.

If Sharon believed his argument against negotiation—that it's an expression of weakness—he would apply it to Arafat. In fact, however, Sharon makes the opposite point about Arafat's constant willingness to negotiate: It conceals unyielding resistance. In talking about Arafat, Sharon distinguishes between the appearance of compromise—words and meetings—and the reality. Why shouldn't Israel adopt the same distinction? If Arafat can talk peace while waging war, why can't Sharon?