After the Israel Bombing: Fumbling for a Response

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The expressions of outrage or approval to Monday's Palestinian suicide bombing in Tel Aviv were grimly predictable. But deep down the respective comments reveal the extent to which all the main players in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — including Hamas itself — continue to search for a coherent response to the intractable reality that Hamas now runs the Palestinian government.

Hamas: There's What We Say, and Then There's What We Do

Hamas's Prime Minister Ismail Haniya called the bombing "a legitimate act of self-defense" for which he blamed Israel. Yet Hamas itself has refrained from such "acts of self-defense" over the past year, and indications are that it will continue to do so because a terror campaign would likely force economic and perhaps military measures by Israel and the donor community that would wreck its prospects as a government. The movement may be internally divided by the demands of its unexpected ascent to power, but its rivals — both Islamic Jihad, which took responsibility for Monday's attack, and also factions of the Fatah party of President Mahmoud Abbas — have sought to claim the mantle of militancy and undermine the new government's authority by continuing to launch attacks on Israelis. In fact, the political purpose of the Tel Aviv bombing was as much to undermine Hamas as it was to hurt Israel. And Hamas's own public statements justifying the attack actually played to the advantage of Israeli and U.S. efforts to isolate Hamas.

President Mahmoud Abbas: Condemnation as Usual, but No Action

In contrast to Hamas leaders, President Mahmoud Abbas quickly condemned the bombings as "despicable" and against Palestinian interests, a position he has held for years. But when it comes to restraining terror attacks, Abbas is — and always has been — a lame duck, unable to enforce his position in his own ranks. Leaders of the very same Fatah movement that the U.S. hopes to have reelected have for weeks been attacking Israelis, with rockets and even at least one suicide bomber, as part of their campaign to undermine Hamas. On the other hand, though Hamas won't condemn Monday's attack, it has been largely successful in restraining its militants from mounting attacks of their own. And since Abbas insists, with backing from the Bush administration, on maintaining political control over the Palestinian security services rather than placing them under the control of the Hamas-led government, he is demanding, in effect, that he — rather than Hamas — must be held accountable for preventing terror attacks emanating from Palestinian territory.

The United States: Stop Backing Terror or We, uh, Won't Talk to You

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack responded to the bombing by saying Hamas's response showed its "true nature," while White House spokesman Scott McClellan castigated Hamas for defending terrorism: "Defense or sponsorship of terrorist acts by officials of the Palestinian cabinet will have the gravest effects on relations between the Palestinian Authority and all states seeking peace in the Middle East," McClellan said. All very well, but the U.S. and Israel have already cut off all relations with the Palestinian Authority since Hamas is now in charge, so it's not exactly clear what he's threatening. Indeed, if a Hamas-led government is simply, as the Israelis claim, a "terrorist entity" — and applauding terrorism is its "true nature" — then chastising it for its press statements would appear to be a waste of breath. By cutting all ties with the PA once Hamas took over, the U.S. discarded its leverage over the Palestinian government — but Hamas isn't going anywhere, and the collapse of the PA would leave Washington with even less of a Mideast peace policy than it already has.

Israel: Hamas Is Responsible, But We Won't Retaliate

Israel's Prime Minister-elect Ehud Olmert held Hamas responsible for attack, but declined to order a military response. This might be a canny "give-'em-enough-rope" move on Israel's part — Israeli restraint may give Hamas's own reaction time to harden the support of wavering Europeans for a strategy of isolating the new Palestinian government. But Israel's reluctance to take direct action against the Hamas-led government also reflects a certain realpolitik: As much as Israel would like to see Hamas fail, its security chiefs are also aware that there is no credible alternative — President Abbas is a spent force, and taking down the Hamas government means, effectively, destroying the Palestinian Authority itself. The resulting vacuum would force Israel to resume administrative control of an increasingly violent and chaotic West Bank and Gaza, territories over which Israel continues to maintain sovereign control. And that would wreck Olmert's plans to unilaterally redraw boundaries between Israel and the Palestinians on terms most favorable to Israel. Better to allow Palestinian infighting that will likely destroy any chance of creating a coherent Palestinian response to Olmert's plans. Then again, even if Israel doesn't bomb the PA, its economic stranglehold might still result in the collapse of the PA, which is exactly what Israel wants to avoid.