Monday, April 17, 2006

It's No Coincidence That Blast Follows Iran's Threat

Michael Binyon, The Times:
This is as crucial a test for Ehud Olmert as it is for the Hamas Government that took power in the Palestinian territories three weeks ago. The newly elected Israeli Prime Minister, still negotiating to form a coalition after the victory of Kadima last month, said that Israel would respond “in the way and manner required” to the bombing. Judging the degree of retaliation is a tricky political calculation that will leave a lasting mark on the his ability to fulfil the Kadima agenda.

A full-scale reoccupation of Gaza, the home territory of Hamas and of Islamic Jihad, would be seen as an admission that the pull-out a year ago was a mistake. It would also strain relations with Washington. A round of assassinations of Hamas leaders would be difficult as many now hold positions in the Palestinian Government: killing them would end all possibility of doing business with the Palestinians.

But unless there is a robust military operation to round up suspected militants, Mr Olmert will lose enormous authority from an outraged Israeli electorate, making it difficult to carry through his plans for an eventual withdrawal from most of the West Bank.

For the Hamas Government, the dilemma is no less acute. Its immediate statement, justifying the attack as a “legitimate response” to Israeli aggression, makes the entire Government a target for retaliation.

But Hamas has found itself squeezed on all sides. The cut-off in Israeli and Western funds will soon force it into bankruptcy, making it impossible to pay salaries. Not only will that send the high Palestinian unemployment rate shooting up still further, but it will quickly disillusion those many Palestinians who voted for Hamas to end corruption and install better governance.

At the same time Hamas has been outflanked in militancy by Islamic Jihad, the rival extremist movement that has carried out eight of the nine suicide bombings in Israel and the West Bank since Hamas declared a ceasefire in February 2005. Hamas may appear in the slums of Gaza the weaker of the two in standing up to Israel.

It has chosen to praise the bombing in an attempt to keep its ideological support and divert attention from the failure to deliver better services to Palestinian voters. But this in effect seals its fate with the West — and means that the Hamas Government will have to wait, probably a long time, before receiving any of the promised money from Qatar or Iran.

The Hamas response also puts it into direct conflict with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, who condemned the bombing as a “terrorist attack”. Mr Abbas wants America, Russia, the EU and the UN to intervene. But any such concerted move now seems unlikely.

The result will be a greater loss of power and credibility by the hapless President. He now appears to have no control either over his own party, over his Government, over the Israelis or over the global response, making his plea for a resumption of the peace process almost irrelevant.

The clear aim of those behind the bomber was to heighten the tension both within Israel and among the Palestinians and sabotage any de facto accommodation with Hamas. It is no coincidence that this comes after renewed calls by Iran’s President for the destruction of Israel and after Iran offered to step in to fund the Hamas Government. READ MORE