Hamas win fires up Netanyahu

 

MIDDLE EAST: "A regime analogous to the Taliban . . . To the ayatollahs that rule Iran . . . A group akin to the Nazi party, whom some claimed would moderate once in power."

These are the proclamations that have been broadcast from almost every public pulpit by the leader of the right-wing Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu in the wake of Hamas's stunning victory a week ago in Palestinian parliamentary elections.

Clearly sensing he had been presented with an issue that could buoy his floundering party just two months ahead of national elections, he pointed the finger of blame: Ariel Sharon's decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip last summer was a reward to Hamas and directly contributed to its triumph.

But the more shrill the Likud leader's pronouncements became, the less the electorate seemed to be listening. Israelis are clearly concerned by Hamas's win, but they are not spooked by Mr Netanyahu's dire analogies.

Two opinion polls published this week in the wake of the Islamic movement's victory have produced an unchanged picture, with acting prime minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima party on 40-plus seats in the 120-seat parliament, the Labor Party hovering near 20, and Likud around 15.

If anything, the rise to power of Hamas seems to have strengthened the sense among many Israelis that unilateral measures must be taken to establish a border with the Palestinians - a move that will require the dismantling of many settlements in the West Bank. It is this unilateralist programme that Ariel Sharon came to epitomise and which is now almost the sole calling-card of both Mr Olmert and the Kadima (Forward) party set up by Israel's coma-stricken prime minister.

The failure of the Camp David peace talks in mid-2000 and the subsequent eruption of violence convinced many Israelis that there was no peace partner on the Palestinian side. The victory of Hamas, which refuses to recognise Israel's right to exist - its charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state - has cemented the "no partner" thesis for many Israelis.

But the last five years of violence have also persuaded many in Israel that they cannot continue to control over three million Palestinians. Hence the birth of unilaterlism.

Some Israeli commentators have suggested that political power might tame Hamas. Others have argued that a Hamas-led government might be able to make the tough concessions needed to seal an agreement with Israel, that Yasser Arafat and the PLO were unable to make.

This logic derives from a well-worn Israeli adage - "Only the right-wing can make peace and only the left-wing can go to war."

In Israel, though, the left and right positions have largely collapsed, and have been usurped by a cynical pragmatism that finds expression in a sweeping, irrepressible drive toward unilateralism that has infected most of the public - and the politicians.

So much so that even the Labor Party, which originally called for renewed talks with the Palestinians, succumbed in the wake of Hamas's victory, with its leader Amir Peretz endorsing the call for Israel to take one-sided measures in establishing a border with the Palestinians.

Only Mr Netanyahu, who resigned over the Gaza pullout, is swimming against the unilateral tide. He has made little headway. But, if Israelis aren't buying his Hamas-is-Hitler routine, it is also because of a dramatic decline in violence over the last year.

If the suicide bombers again start blowing themselves up in Israeli cities, Mr Netanyahu might find that the politics of fear, which served him so well in the past, are back in vogue.