A couple of weeks ago, I engaged in an email debate on the contention that Israel “created” Hamas. This Wall Street Journal Online article confirms my point that Israel willfully turned a blind eye toward Sheikh Yassin’s activities in the ’70s and the early ’80s, before he founded Hamas in ’88, but didn’t actively support Islamist activities (it didn’t literally “create” Hamas). It took over a decade for Israelis to realize that Sheikh Yassin had violent intentions toward Israel.
Israel’s relationship with the predecessors of Hamas constituted a low-level form of “blowback.” A more heavy duty example of the blowback phenomenon was the CIA’s relationship with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s; the CIA indirectly helped this monster get started on his career by channeling aid to bin Laden and other badies through Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service. This continues as blowback today for the moderate, secular authorities in Pakistan, as it relates to Pakistan’s own problem with a Taliban insurgency.
But the CIA efforts with bin Laden and other Mujaheddin (“holy warriors”) was a much more self-conscious and focused strategy than Israel’s regarding what eventually became Hamas. Israel mostly supported these elements by not suppressing them (in contrast to Israel’s actions against secular Palestinian nationalists) and this is what my Israeli sources tell me.
My Meretz roots place me in the tradition of a Zionist movement that advocated reaching out to the PLO as early as 1974, in what is known as the Shemtov-Yariv Formula. Victor Shemtov, head of the Socialist-Zionist Mapam party (then a partner with the Labor party in what was known as the Labor Alignment – in effect, Israel’s governing party) joined with a top Labor party politician, a reserve general and ex-chief of military intelligence, Aaron Yariv, to urge that Israel engage in negotiations with any Palestinian groups that agreed to non-violence and a peaceful resolution with Israel. This was understood as an opening to the PLO, and it effectively ended Yariv’s political career in the Labor party.
We in Americans for Progressive Israel (the pro-Mapam group I joined in 1982, a predecessor to Meretz USA) looked to Shemtov-Yaariv as a central political principle. So we were always opposed to any strategy to cultivate radical religious Palestinian groups as a counter-balance to the PLO.