Without Hamas, there will be no interim agreement and no long-term solution. The notion of the ‘moderates’ reaching an agreement between themselves while the ‘fundamentalists’ are ignored or even dealt with forcefully is a dangerous illusion.
For the past week Israel has been negotiating with Hamas in Cairo. While the Palestinian delegation to the talks includes a representative of Mahmoud Abbas, and while the Egyptians are the ones carrying the messages back and forth between the two parties, everyone knows exactly what this is all about. These are no longer talks about prisoner exchanges, but rather a first attempt to touch upon the core issues relating to the siege on Gaza and the status of Hamas as ruler of the Strip. Israel is talking to Hamas (and to Islamic Jihad, which is closer to Iran). Better get used to it.
Netanyahu is drawing fire from the Right – that’s to be expected – but a lot of it is coming from the Left too. Bibi’s critics on the Left claim that ever since the kidnappings all he has done is strengthen Hamas (that’s true), help Hamas regroup during its time of crisis (that’s also true), and that instead he should be talking only to Abbas and other “moderates.” And that’s dead wrong.
Hamas, as any serious observer knows, is a political movement with an armed wing (so is Fatah, by the way). These kinds of organizations are common with national liberation movements – just like Sinn Fein was or the Jewish militia in Mandatory Palestine. More importantly, Hamas represents a vast portion of the Palestinian public in Gaza and the West Bank. It’s a grassroots movement, closely tied to the population, not some postmodern, transnational volunteer organization like ISIS or al-Qaeda.
Even if the actual support rate for Hamas within the Palestinian population doesn’t reach 50%, but only 40% or even 35%, that’s high enough to turn it into an essential part of any binding political solution, because with such strong support it has the ability to sabotage any agreement if left out. Just as any agreement that would only represent half of the Jewish population would have very low chances of succeeding (see Oslo Accord).
The notion of the “moderates” reaching an agreement between themselves while the “fundamentalists” are ignored or even dealt with forcefully is just the type of illusion the Israeli Left likes to come up with (see this campaign for example). It’s also the kind of thinking that led to some of American’s worst foreign policy disasters. If the Israeli peace camp was serious about peace, it would go out and demand that the Cairo talks be turned into preparation for further negotiations on a permanent solution, instead of daydreaming about striking a separate deal with Abbas.
This is where people usually jump up and remind us that Hamas’ charter calls for the destruction or the dismantling of the State of Israel. So what. There’s a big difference between talk and political action. The platform of Likud – Israel’s ruling party for most of the period since 1977 – doesn’t recognize the Palestinian people as the native people of this land, not their civil rights nor their right to a state of their own. And still, Palestinians have been negotiating with Likud members for 20 years now, without ever making it their condition that Likud changes its platform and rewrites its history prior to any talks. The wording of Hamas’ charter, just like that of the PLO’s charter before it, are only an excuse to avoid negotiations.
If the current talks would have been about “the destruction of Israel,” avoiding them would have been the right step. But the talks are about a long-term ceasefire, the lifting of the siege, about the safety of the citizens of Israel and the wellbeing of the residents of Gaza. How can anyone oppose that? I simply don’t get the Israeli peace camp anymore, that roots for the government during wartime and attacks it from the right during talks.
Hamas is a central part of “the Palestinian Problem,” which is why Hamas must be part of any solution. Prime Minister Netanyahu should be congratulated for finally understanding that the conflict has no military solution. Instead of restoring the taboo on talking to Hamas, we should be glad that it is Netanyahu, of all people, who is breaking it.
Any criticism towards Netanyahu should be about him still needing the Egyptians in the room, along with their own problematic agenda and interests. It should be for sticking to the divide and rule approach towards the Palestinians, instead of treating their entire leadership with respect. It should be for always refusing to deal with the core issues and only agreeing to the minimum of steps required for maintaining the status quo. And most of all, it should be for being dragged into doing the right thing, a month too late and thousands of lives too short, and only after first exhausting every single worst option.