Op-Ed Columnist – Strengthening Extremists – Op-Ed – NYTimes.com
When Hamas won democratic elections in Gaza and then seized full power a year ago, there were no good choices for Israel and America. Hamas includes terrorists, Islamic fundamentalists and ideologues, and it has cultivated ties with Iran. It has decent governance by the region’s devalued standards — it is not particularly corrupt; it delivers social services efficiently, and the streets are safe — but it runs a police state and alarms all its neighbors.
Of all the bad choices, Israel chose perhaps the worst. Punishing everyone in Gaza radicalized the population, cast Hamas as a victim, gave its officials an excuse for economic failures and undermined the moderates who are the best hope of both Israel and the Arab world.
If the U.S. and Israel had formed a Joint Commission to Support Hamas Extremists and Bolster Iranian Influence, they could hardly have done a better job.
I like this column because it talks about the good and bad both in Palestine and Israel, and it does away with the fairy tale that isolating Hamas has weakened it. We’ve strengthened Hamas, I’m sad to say, by making them sympathetic figures and the only game in town. Moreover, Kristof discusses–rightly–how Hamas won the respect of voters: on domestic, bread-and-butter issues like fighting corruption and delivering public goods and services. These are, of course, only a government’s most basic responsibilities, but it shows how the turmoil in Palestine has weakened local standards: by beating the corrupt and inefficient Fatah at the basic give-and-take of governing, Hamas has won the authority to create a bellicose police state posing a grave threat to its neighbors. If we want to create a truly lasting democracy, as Bush often says is his aim just about anywhere, we both have to accept that foreigners may elect people we don’t like, and that when they do so, we should allow their countries to cultivate peaceful alternatives on their own that the voters will quickly realize are better than having a destructive military order.
In any democracy, you’ll find that bitterness and desperation breed extremism. If you look at a graph of party affiliation in prewar Germany, you’ll see that moderate parties in the political center had dwindled to nothing, while extremist parties on the far right and left suddenly became the major players. While we should not (barring extreme circumstances) meddle in other countries’ internal affairs, it’s clear that if we want other countries to have democracy (and I happen to think it’s the best system in the world), the best way we can help democracy fluorish and keep extremists out of power is to improve living conditions and help temper nationalist resentment and fury. By “isolating” Hamas, not only did we give them a political monopoly in the Gaza Strip, but we improverished its citizens (more than they already were), crippled their economy, and drained all hope from the young population, turning its citizens into ripe fruit for the picking by violent, dehumanizing causes. Obviously, a murder-by-rocket is the sole responsibility of the people who carried it out. But, it is in our best interest–and it is Israel’s most important interest–to keep the Israeli people safe, and that means diffusing the resentment and rage that fuels radical violence.
Rockets fired into Sderot only galvanize the radicals in Israel, and their American allies, to continue a ghastly campaign of collective punishment that goes against all international legal and ethical standards. Crackdowns and blockades against the Gaza Strip only radicalize the population and create sympathy for Hamas, so that they can continue campaigns of violence, authoritarianism, and geopolitical destabilization that threaten the peace of the entire region. Extremism feeds on itself, and taking a one-size-fits-all approach to Palestinian politics marginalizes only the moderates in Israel and Palestine who are our last, best hope for Middle East peace.