In what has become an all too familiar exercise, Israelis go to the polls in five days to elect a new Knesset for the fourth time in two years. In what has become an all too rare exercise, Palestinians go to the polls in two months to elect a new Palestinian Legislative Council for the first time in fifteen years. In both instances, there is a strong likelihood that among the new legislators will be terrorists and people who support terrorism, largely because Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas have not only insisted on their inclusion but enabled it. The situations are not equivalent, but the U.S. approach to both should adhere to basic principles that focus not on the fact that these actors will be part of the political system, but on the extent of their inclusion and what conditions they must abide by.
In the Israeli case, the Kahanist party Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) has combined with Bezalel Smotrich’s Tekuma to run under the banner of Religious Zionism. This merger was brokered and urged by Netanyahu in an effort to get both parties above the Knesset threshold of 3.25%, and not only has Netanyahu pledged that Religious Zionism will be part of any coalition he forms, but just this week he repeatedly said in public that anyone uncomfortable voting for Likud should vote for Religious Zionism. The Otzma Yehudit component of Religious Zionism is led by Itamar Ben Gvir, an openly proud disciple of the Jewish terrorist Meir Kahane whose introduction to politics was being the leader of the youth movement for the banned Kach party. Among Ben Gvir’s claims to fame are being the leading attorney for Jewish terrorism suspects, being so radical as a teenager that he was disqualified from mandatory army service by the IDF, and hanging a portrait of the infamous Cave of the Patriarchs terrorist Baruch Goldstein in his living room for years. Ben Gvir’s former boss and current Otzma Yehudit chairman, Michael Ben Ari, was denied a U.S. visa in 2012 on terrorism grounds, and was disqualified by Israel’s Supreme Court for the Knesset despite attempting to run alongside Ben Gvir in the April 2019 election. Ben Gvir, who supports the expulsion of Arab citizens he deems to be disloyal, is third on the Religious Zionism list, which guarantees him a Knesset seat should the party – currently polling at five seats – make it above the Knesset threshold. And if a party founded by prominent members of a banned organization, which has links to terrorism, constantly glorifies terrorists, and is wrapped up in a platform and message of religion and social conservatism uncomfortably reminds you of something on the Palestinian side, you won’t be alone.
There is no need to delve into the details of Hamas and terrorism, as they are are well known and indisputable. Unlike the slight uncertainty about Otzma Yehudit’s political prospects, Hamas will emerge from Palestinian legislative elections as either the largest or second largest component of the PLC. There is also no basis for a direct comparison between Otzma, a political party with links to past terrorism and currently odious views, and Hamas, an active terrorist group that commits ongoing violence and that also functions as a political party. These two actors are not the same and should not be treated as such, but they do raise related questions about what American policy should be when each gets legitimated by elections and the U.S. has to formulate a plan for engaging with future Israeli and Palestinian governments that will include them in one way or another.
When it comes to the next Israeli coalition, nobody has suggested that the Biden administration or Congress refuse to deal with the Israeli government if Otzma politicians are part of the Knesset or members of the coalition, nor should they. Ben Gvir is going to end up with a position of relevance if Religious Zionism is part of a Netanyahu coalition, whether it be as a member of the judges selection committee or a committee chairperson or a second tier minister; while that should spark outrage and denunciation, it is not going to mean cessation of engagement with the Israeli government. Ben Gvir will be kept far away from anything having to do with the U.S. and direct American interests and concerns, and will never come within sniffing distance of a meeting with American officials. The point will be to keep Ben Gvir in his lane.
When it comes to the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, taking a similar but more robust approach is wiser than refusing to engage with whatever Palestinian government emerges. It is questionable whether holding elections now was a wise move, notwithstanding the necessity to restore some measure of Palestinian unity, but Palestinian politics is unquestionably the best way for solving the issues of Palestinian unity and governance. Rather than openly and actively encourage them – as the U.S. did in 2006 – or openly and actively hinder them, the U.S. should stand out of the way and see what emerges. Letting the process play out until the outcome is apparent will provide for a fuller range of options than laying down any absolute markers at the outset would, beyond making it clear that the U.S. will not engage with a Palestinian government directly led by Hamas.
There are already clear and far-reaching limits under U.S. law pertaining to how any administration can engage with the Palestinians. The 2006 Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which restricts budgetary support to the PA if any ministries are controlled by Hamas, has been superseded by the far harsher restrictions of the 2018 Taylor Force Act, which prohibits spending any money on anything that directly benefits the Palestinian Authority until it ends its martyr and prisoner payments system. The exceptions that both laws make for humanitarian assistance will not be impacted if Hamas runs in the upcoming elections, so the restoration of humanitarian aid that the Biden administration has talked about is not at risk. This also demonstrates how the overlapping layers of legislation—that now prohibit supporting the PA, prohibit supporting anything that might directly benefit the PA, prohibit official Palestinian diplomatic representation on U.S. soil, and prohibit any official Palestinian engagement in Washington outside of meeting U.S. government officials—have had at least one unintended consequence, since when there is nothing left to threaten to take away, there is also no leverage to be had.
Rather than state ahead of time that there will be no American engagement of any sort with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, it makes sense to think about what our ultimate goals are. If they are to eradicate Hamas from the Palestinian body politic, that is not something that we can actually accomplish and it is thus a fool’s errand. What the U.S. should be aiming for is to incentivize better Hamas behavior while allowing continued engagement with a PA that is neither led by or controlled by Hamas.
This may unfold in a number of ways depending on the outcome of Palestinian elections, but it will not be a repeat of 2006. Even if Hamas wins outright and takes control of the Palestinian parliament, the Palestinian prime minister will not come from Hamas due to changes in Palestinian governance spurred by the 2006 elections; the Palestinian president now appoints the prime minister irrespective of the makeup of the PLC and Abbas is not going to appoint a Hamas politician, so there is no scenario whereby Hamas will control the government after the legislative elections. But Hamas will garner a high level of voter support and part of the purpose of elections is to enable Palestinian unity, so the question becomes what level of Hamas involvement and what conditions will still allow the U.S. to engage. When Hamas won its first election victory in 2006, the conditions imposed by the U.S. in conjunction with the Quartet were that Hamas recognize Israel, agree to abide by past agreements, and renounce violence. Hamas did not agree to abide by these conditions, and the U.S. has adhered to this position through the Hamas takeover of Gaza, the hardening of Hamas control there, and the seeming institutionalization of the Fatah-Hamas split, all while nothing we have pursued has contributed to weakening Hamas or furthering our aims of better Palestinian governance and accountability.
As much as the U.S. does not want to grant any legitimacy to Hamas, the core of our interest is to reduce, if not outright eliminate, Hamas violence and not allow Hamas to act as a spoiler with regard to Israeli security or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Looked at in this light, there are a number of alternate approaches that could make sense. The U.S. could focus on the previous condition of Hamas forswearing violence and make that inviolable, understanding that while it is critical to get Hamas recognition of Israel for any durable final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, the current environment calls for far less ambitious aims. While the full Quartet conditions remain important, they were formulated to deal with the challenge of a Hamas-led government, a possibility that under the current configuration does not exist. The U.S. could also set redlines for which specific parts of the Palestinian Authority are controlled by Hamas; having a Hamas foreign minister or Hamas control of any component of the PA Security Forces detrimentally impacts our interests, whereas it is difficult to claim that a Hamas labor or health minister does the same. Such a policy would also put the U.S. more in line with the Israeli government, which like the U.S. does not have formal relations with Hamas but deals with Hamas in Gaza in a variety of ways and does not allow Hamas’s existence to impede it from having a relationship with the PA.
Maintaining stasis with no way forward is not a plan. If the U.S. rules out engaging with any and all Palestinian entities if Hamas participates in elections, irrespective of the outcome or the circumstances, we will accomplish little beyond entrenching our mounting irrelevance within Palestinian politics. Better to maintain a cautious approach before the Palestinians vote, while voicing our clear expectations: should a Hamas that has pledged itself to non-violence be excluded from key Palestinian ministries and positions of control, the U.S. will be open to making a distinction between the Palestinian Authority writ large and Hamas as a component of it.