Israel takes election in stride

By Uriel Heilman, JTA

JERUSALEM — With international attention focused on Gaza and the West Bank after Hamas’ surprising victory in Palestinian elections, many Israelis took in the news of the terrorist group’s success with a combination of astonishment and fatalism.

Successive hourly bulletins Thursday brought news of Hamas’ victory margin to ever more stunning proportions, and Israeli political commentators described the developments as a “political earthquake.”

Yet many Israelis seemed resigned to the news.

“What can I tell you? This topic is so difficult and painful,” said Elisheva Melamed-Cohen of Jerusalem. “I feel like I almost live in Palestine when I listen to the radio. But lately I prefer not to hear the news.”

In a country still reeling from the sudden political loss of its own larger-than-life prime minister, Ariel Sharon, news of Hamas’ rise to power seemed almost too much to digest. While the Israeli punditry went into full-mobilization mode, many ordinary Israelis simply took the news as more of the same.

“Most Israelis see most Palestinians as all the same thing, so for them Hamas and Fatah are the same thing,” observed Shoshana Halper, a left-wing activist who works at Israel’s Open University.

“What worries me about Hamas is not their ‘terrorism’ but that it’s an organization that is religious, fundamentalist and anti-woman,” she said. “That’s the frightening thing here.”

Most Israelis were surprised by the developments, but not particularly alarmed.

In downtown Jerusalem, reporters from around the world broadcast from bustling street corners while crowds of Israelis and tourists went about business as usual, buying jewelry on Ben Yehudah Street’s pedestrian promenade, haggling with taxi drivers and eating frozen yogurt.

The round-the-clock news coverage that greeted Ariel Sharon’s stroke earlier this month was absent Thursday. Few Israeli radio and TV stations interrupted their regular programming, and stories about Friday’s first-ever international day of remembrance for the Holocaust made all the evening news programs.

“What was the final thing — Hamas took 40 percent?” Yomtov Groner, founder of a kosher tour company, asked when queried about the election’s results.

When told of Hamas’ landslide win, Groner, unfazed, pronounced the outcome “very predictable after what happened this past summer.”

“Israel disengaged,” he said, referring to the Gaza withdrawal, “and the perception that was given among the Palestinians is the fact that terrorism is working, that Hamas is doing a very effective job of getting Israel out of the Middle East.”

Like many Israelis, Groner took the outcome as a sign of Palestinian disgust with corruption in the ruling Fatah Party, as much as enthusiasm for Hamas ideology.

Privately, many Israelis say Hamas would make a better negotiating partner than Fatah, since Hamas actually does what it says and can deliver on its promises.

“Only the extremists are those who can make peace,” said Ari Sturm, a resident of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Kedumim. “Only when Sharon broke left did the left support him. When Hamas breaks left for the sake of peace, Fatah will give it support.”

Still Sturm said, he did not believe peace was close at hand.

“I think peace will be possible only when the Palestinians decide to stop inciting against us in the schools, in the media,” he said. In the meantime, he cautioned, “terror will be renewed.”

Few in Israel believe that in the short term there can be a productive dialogue with Hamas, a group that has made the destruction of Israel one of its central tenets. But Shimon Peres, Israel’s former prime minister, did not rule out hope for the future.

“Democracy is not a 24-hour thing,” he said in a television interview. Stressing that Israel is opposed to Hamas’ ideology rather than its mere existence, Peres explained, “We do not fight a name; we’re fighting positions. If they change, it will be a different story.”

In the days before the election, Israeli media closely monitored developments in Gaza and the West Bank, including an unprecedented Nightline-style TV debate between Palestinian Authority Civil Affairs Minister Muhammad Dahlan and Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar.

Dahlan was perceived as the hands-down victor in the debate, portions of which were rebroadcast in translation on Israeli TV.

The winner at the ballot box, however, indisputably was Hamas. That leaves Israel — and the rest of the Western world — with a conundrum: What do you do when a nation freely chooses a group that espouses terrorist rejectionism?

“A nation votes — what can you do? You can’t tell another nation what government to choose,” Halper said.