The Saban Center for Middle East Policy held a policy luncheon discussion with Israeli Minister Ami Ayalon on January 16, 2008. Ayalon discussed policy recommendations regarding how Israel should deal with Hamas. He argued that pursuing negotiations with President Mahmoud Abbas and creating political progress on the ground in the West Bank would marginalize Hamas’s message of violence and resistance.
Ayalon began by noting that Hamas is more than a terrorist group; it has become a political movement that differs from Fatah in ideology and practice. Unlike Fatah, Hamas does not accept the notion of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and unlike Fatah, Hamas shuns diplomacy, instead favoring violence to achieve its aims. Ayalon argued that because Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 was done unilaterally, Hamas increased its standing among Palestinians through its claim that its methods drove Israel out.
In addressing the question of what should be done about the rise of Hamas, Ayalon spoke of his tenure in the late 1990s as Director of the Shin Bet (aka the Shabak, the Israel Security Agency). Ayalon said that from 1997 to 1999, incidents of Palestinian terrorism dropped significantly in Israel. This was not due to the work of Israel’s security services, Ayalon argued, but rather because there was widespread political support, among Palestinians, for peaceful dialogue with Israel. Because Hamas is a political organization, Ayalon said, it closely monitors public sentiment and tailors its actions accordingly. As a result, when the Palestinian public supports the peace process or political dialogue, Hamas reduces its terrorist activity. Ayalon said that Hamas’s leadership asks itself before each terrorist operation how Palestinians will react. Only if the leadership believes that the public will support the operation does Hamas proceed. Ayalon also noted that when the Palestinian public supports calm, Palestinian security forces are able to act against terrorist groups without being seen as Israeli collaborators.
Ayalon noted the importance of U.S. intervention, saying that in the late 1990s, Israel had a right-wing Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet, at that time many Palestinians still believed in political dialogue with Israel because they viewed the United States as a capable arbiter.
While Ayalon argued that Israel should launch powerful military operations against terrorist infrastructure, he said that this alone would not increase Israel’s national security. Instead, Ayalon called for policies that foster hope within Palestinian society; Israel should show that pragmatism brings results. If Israel does this, Ayalon said, a split would emerge within Hamas between pragmatists and radicals. For this reason, Ayalon supports Israel’s current policy of working with the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank while isolating the Gaza Strip. According to Ayalon, if Palestinians see President Abbas’s efforts as successful and the situation in the West Bank improves, Palestinians in Gaza will pressure Hamas to moderate. Therefore, Ayalon said Israel should take immediate action to demonstrate progress on the political front, including bolstering Abbas, evacuating settler outposts, and reducing the number of checkpoints. Ayalon argued that two key components support this strategy: Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza want to be united and Palestinians deeply value democracy.
During the question and answer portion of the luncheon, there was some disagreement about whether times of political hope correlate with a reduction in terrorist violence. Once participant argued that in 1999 and 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak took large steps toward peace, yet there was still an outbreak of violence—the second intifadah. Ayalon said that it is important for Israel to try to view situations from the Palestinian perspective. As such, by late 2000, many Palestinians had lost hope in the political process and for this reason supported increased violence.
Ayalon said that both sides should move beyond the desire for revenge. Instead, Ayalon said that Israelis and the Palestinians need to address the core issues of the conflict. Ambiguity—a strategy that both sides pursued in the past—has proven harmful, with each side unwilling to confront the difficult realities associated with settling the core issues. As such, Israelis and Palestinians need to engage on the issues of Jerusalem and refugees, and Israel needs to ask itself what it means to be a Jewish and democratic state.