In a way, Ariel Sharon has been proven wrong. In a way, Ariel Sharon has been proven right.
Last summer, Israel's Prime Minister relinquished all claims to Gaza. His decision to uproot Jewish communities and remove Israel's military presence from a disputed territory sharply divided Israelis. Angry protests erupted in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The ruling Likud Party broke under the strain. There was even talk of civil war.
Natan Sharansky, an Israeli politician and democracy activist -- not least on behalf of Arabs and Muslims -- was among those who opposed “unilateral disengagement” from Gaza. Palestinians, he said, would see the move as a victory for Hamas. It would vindicate Hamas' claim that terrorism is the broom that can sweep the region clean of Jews once and for all.
But Sharon also was correct: He recognized that Israel had no partner with whom it could make peace. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had turned out to be feckless, able to deliver nothing of value.
With that in mind, Sharon determined to pursue a separate peace – and a peace of separation. By getting out of Gaza and constructing a security fence along the West Bank, Sharon drew an armistice line that can be negotiated if and when the Palestinians have leaders seriously interested in ending the conflict.
That Palestinians will not now have such leaders is beyond dispute. Hamas is a Militant Islamist organization. Its ideology is indistinguishable from that of al-Qaeda, even if its ambitions are currently limited to waging a violent jihad against “infidels” only on the battlefield between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. (Although, as scholar Daniel Pipes has noted, a recent Hamas children's publication calls for parts of Spain to be returned to Muslim rule as well.)
Hamas has close ties with Iran's radical mullahs. And it is unambiguous in its enthusiasm for terrorism: It parades its children dressed up as suicide bombers.
The annihilation of Israel is not merely Hamas' negotiating posture. It is a deeply held religious conviction. Jews, Christians and moderate Muslims may not like Hamas' interpretation of Islam. But we can't just wish it away.
Does that imply that progress toward peace is impossible in the near term? Of course it does. Nevertheless, this is a significant moment. Palestinian voters were given the opportunity to make a choice. Respecting that choice demands they now be given the chance to accept its consequences. To do otherwise would be to treat Palestinians as infants.
Hamas will have authority. It must be saddled with responsibility as well. The U.S. and Europe say they will not fund a Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority until and unless Hamas recognizes Israel's right to exist. So Hamas must either change or govern without Western aid and investment. But change – sincere change, not rhetorical chance – is difficult when policy is based on a religious obligation to raise “the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.”
If Hamas seeks to replace Western funds for the Palestinian Authority with oil money from Iran or Saudi Arabia, so be it. Hamas already takes instructions from Tehran; bags full of dollars and euros won't change that.
And do the math: If an attack by Hamas leads Israel to destroy a Palestinian factory built with American or European cash, no Militant Islamist anywhere in the world will mind. But if an attack by Hamas leads Israel to destroy a Palestinian factory built with Iranian or Saudi money, there might be some incentive for Iranian and Saudi donors to counsel restraint in the future.
Hamas' leaders are extremists, but they are not stupid. While Sharon lies in a coma, a new Israeli election campaign has begun. Aggressive moves by Hamas now would impact the political process in ways Hamas' leaders may view as deleterious to their interests – and their longevity.
And an attack by Hamas after a new Israeli government is elected would probably bring about a more forceful response from Israel than was the case when a Fatah-led Palestinian Authority could claim it was powerless to control Hamas.
For Hamas to say it can't control Hamas will be more problematic. Though Ariel Sharon, were he up and about, would probably wager a few shekels that such an argument will be made -- and will be believed by many of the diplomats and politicians he has known.