It was December of an election year, and President Bush was winding up his term. The newly elected Democrat was waiting in the wings. In Israel, a prime minister who seemed committed to the “peace process” decided to put an end, once and for all, to the threat posed by Hamas to Israel’s citizens. The prime minister took a bold move, and entrusted Ehud Barak to do the job.
No, this scenario isn’t December 2008. It’s December 1992. The outgoing president was George H.W. Bush; the incoming one, Bill Clinton. The Israeli prime minister was Yitzhak Rabin; Ehud Barak held the post of IDF Chief of Staff. The bold move? The deportation of 415 Hamas activists from the West Bank and Gaza to south Lebanon, following Hamas’s killing of four Israeli soldiers, and its abduction-murder of a border policeman. Those expelled included Ismail Haniyeh, now the Hamas “prime minister,” and Mahmud az-Zahar, today its “foreign minister.” Israel announced that the deportation would be “temporary,” for two years, and that it was required by the “state of emergency” engendered by Hamas attacks.
Israel’s action caused an international uproar. The Palestinians claimed that Israel had violated the Fourth Geneva Convention, and the images from south Lebanon, where the deportees camped out in tents in a winter landscape, boomeranged on Israel. Even the United States wouldn’t stand by Rabin. The U.N. Security Council passed a unanimous resolution which “strongly condemns the action taken by Israel, the occupying power, to deport hundreds of Palestinian civilians.” U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger said the deportation would raise “a lot of serious problems for the peace process,” which the Bush administration wanted to keep “in as a good a shape as we can between now and when Clinton comes in.” Israel soon found itself capitulating—offering to take back some of the deportees, and eventually, within less than a year, all of them. By all reckonings, Israel was defeated politically; Hamas emerged strengthened.
Time and again, Hamas has been saved by the West’s (uneven) application of its principles, only to terrorize another day. It happened again during the George W. Bush administration which, in the name of the vaunted ideals of democracy, allowed Hamas to participate in Palestinian legislative elections—without requiring it to dismantle its terrorist apparatus or accept Israel. Hamas then turned its unexpected electoral victory into a coup in Gaza, acquiring a territorial foothold. Its leaders, who once stood in the freezing rain on a hill in Lebanon, have become rulers of an Islamist principality, where firing indiscriminately into Israel is a sacred ritual that affirms the Palestinian so-called “right of resistance.”
A lot has changed since 1992, and this Bush administration, having waged its own “war on terror,” seems to understand the obvious: that this is the last chance to reduce Hamas to its true proportions, lest the “peace process” finally become the lost cause it’s often appeared to be. But will the United States hold the line alone? Already the British foreign secretary, David Miliband, a kid think-tanker back in 1992, has decided that the level of civilian casualties in Israel’s operation is “unacceptable.” (More precisely, he said that “any innocent loss of life is unacceptable,” which sets a new standard for modern warfare—one that Britain has never once upheld.) The West is forming a line to throw yet another life preserver to a terrorist gang that has become a terrorist entity, and that needs just a little more indulgence to become a terrorist state.
Twice, presidents named Bush have done Hamas big favors. These favors were inadvertent, but they were game-changers. It’s time for a President Bush to do Israel a favor, and let it shove Hamas up against the wall, or right through the wall, depending on what’s still feasible. No doubt President Bush would have preferred to leave office with a tidy “peace process,” good to go. But who couldn’t hear the Hamas bomb ticking in the corner? Better Israel defuse it now, than have it go off under Barack Obama just when he’s trying to defuse an even bigger bomb-making operation—in Iran.