When you’re fighting for your rights, you have a choice to use peaceful methods or violence. I’d like to say that peace works best. But as I watch this experiment in the laboratory of the Middle East conflict, I’m not so sure.
For years, Palestinians have tried both tactics. Some support Hamas, a militant group in control of Gaza that shoots rockets at Israeli civilians to further the Palestinian cause. Others support Fatah, a political party that controls much of the West Bank, which has renounced violence and vowed to use only peaceful means to achieve a Palestinian state.
The difference between the two has never been more stark: Last week, Hamas rockets terrorized Israeli towns. This week, Fatah’s leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is expected to appear at the United Nations to seek recognition as a nonmember state.
I wish I could tell you that the reckless violence proved fruitless, while the peaceful bid at the United Nations is poised to be far more effective.
But sadly, it seems to be just the opposite. Hamas’s rockets resulted in a ceasefire that eased the Israeli blockade on Gaza, giving Hamas a victory to claim. The crisis also produced a flurry of attention and high-level visitors to Gaza from the Muslim world. Fatah basically got ignored.
Meanwhile, Abbas has precious few victories to tout after years of stalemated peace talks. And his statehood bid already seems headed for disaster. Members of Congress have threatened to cut US aid if Abbas goes ahead. Voices in Israel are calling for punishment, including starving Abbas’s government of import duties, annexing parts of the West Bank, or even finding a way to kick Abbas out of power. Israel’s right-wing foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has called Abbas’s strategy at the UN “diplomatic terrorism.”
Is it any wonder that Hamas is getting more popular? If Abbas is a “diplomatic terrorist,” why not just vote for the real thing?
It’s not the first time that violence has produced a public relations victory while peaceful methods have yielded the perception of defeat. After Israel unilaterally pulled out of Gaza in 2005, Hamas told its supporters that Israel withdrew because of the violent resistance to occupation. Meanwhile, Abbas, who has said there will be no intifada on his watch, has no good story to tell his constituents about why the Israeli settlements in the West Bank keep growing.
And Hamas kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, trading him years later for more than 1,000 Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails. Meanwhile, Fatah, which cooperates with Israeli forces to rein in militants, has only gotten a fraction of that number of its prisoners released.
“I said, ‘We should release more prisoners to [Mahmoud Abbas] only because he did not kidnap anybody,’ ” Ami Ayalon, former head of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal intelligence agency, told me.
But no one has ever paid a ransom to a guy who opted not to take a hostage. That’s the heart of the issue: Hamas is like a stick-up man who gets your money by drawing a gun. Abbas is like that traveling salesman trying to sell you something you aren’t sure you really want. It’s easy to slam the door in his face.
And that’s exactly what Israel wants this week when Abbas shows up at the United Nations. But is that wise? The statehood bid is one of the last weapons in his nonviolent arsenal. If it is rendered powerless, the rockets have won.
Ayalon, who left government service and co-founded Blue White Future, a new effort aimed at ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, argues that Israel should support Abbas’s bid in the United Nations, with conditions: Abbas should come to peace talks immediately, and refrain from taking Israel to an international tribunal for six months, or the duration of the talks.
The UN bid is unpopular in Israel, Ayalon said, because most Israelis believe that Palestinians only understand force. “If we finally see a leader who is speaking diplomacy, he is [considered] a weak leader,” Ayalon said. “But unless we send a message to the Palestinians that we can speak diplomacy at least as much as we can speak in military language, we shall not achieve success.”
The truth is, violence is easy. Making peace — and selling it — is hard. But if we believe peaceful UN resolutions are better than rockets, now is the time to prove it. We might not get this chance again.