The Right Way to Pressure Hamas

Editorial

New York Times

February 15, 2006

America and Israel have to walk a very narrow line in defining their relations with a democratically elected Palestinian government built around Hamas, a party that not only endorses terrorism but also commits it. They cannot possibly give political recognition or financial aid to such a government. Neither can any country that claims to oppose terrorism. That defines the right side of the line.

On the wrong side lies the kind of deliberate destabilization that, according to a report by our Times colleague Steven Erlanger, Washington and Jerusalem are now discussing. That would involve a joint American-Israeli campaign to undermine a Hamas government by putting impossible demands on it, starving it of money and putting even greater restrictions on the Palestinians with an eye toward forcing new elections that might propel the defeated and discredited Fatah Party back to power.

Set aside the hypocrisy such a course would represent on the part of the two countries that have shouted the loudest about the need for Arab democracy, and consider the probable impact of such an approach on the Palestinians. They are already driven to distraction by fury, frustration and poverty. Is it really possible to expect that more punishment from the Israelis and the Americans, this time for not voting the way we wanted them to, would lead them to abandon Hamas?

In the long, sorry history of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, there is not a shred of evidence to support the notion that pushing the Palestinian population into more economic desperation would somehow cause them to moderate their political views. In fact, experience teaches the exact opposite.

Fatah lost last month's election because its incompetence and corruption drove Palestinian voters into the arms of the more austere, social-services-oriented Hamas. If the new government fails to deliver because it puts continued terrorism over the well-being of the Palestinian people, it may indeed be booted out of office. But a Hamas that could explain continued Palestinian misery by a deliberate American-Israeli plan to reverse the democratic verdict of the polls would be likely to become only stronger.

Washington publicly asserts that no such plan is being discussed. A far wiser course for the United States to pursue would be to step back and desist from deliberately provoking the Palestinians, and give Hamas a chance to reconsider its own options. Some hints about its intentions may emerge from the way its leaders respond to overtures by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Last week, Mr. Putin indicated that he intended to invite them to Moscow for a visit.

Mr. Putin's move was controversial in the West, and perhaps he should have provided more warning. But that would be a minor snub indeed if he prods Hamas toward renouncing terrorism, accepting Israel's right to exist and reviving the peace process.