Time to talk to Hamas

Israel wants to keep Hamas in the cold, but unless Europe works to encourage dialogue, the violence will continue

‘What would you do?’ Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly asked at the start of his Gaza offensive – rhetorically implying the absence of any possible alternative course of action. Yet there is of course a very obvious alternative open to Israel – to make peace, by giving the Palestinians their own state on the territory occupied by Israel in 1967. ‘Land for peace’ has been the deal waiting to be done for 47 years now – the proposition endorsed by the United Nations from the outset, finally accepted by almost the entire Arab world under the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, and promoted by successive US administrations.

The last such US effort to sponsor a negotiated settlement collapsed earlier this year. Each side naturally blamed the other. Yet an unusually revealing speech on 8 May by Martin Indyk, the chief US mediator, to the Washington Institute for Near East Polic confirms what had seemed obvious to most observers – that the Israeli government’s determination to press ahead with thousands of new settlement housing units on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, even whilst the future of these lands was supposedly being negotiated, scuppered any chance of a successful outcome.

the Israeli government’s is determined to press ahead with thousands of new settlement housing units on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, even whilst the future of these lands was supposedly being negotiated

This should not surprise, given that a key partner in the governing coalition openly calls for the unilateral annexation of 60% of the West Bank (as well, of course, as refusing all other Palestinian aspirations, such as a share of Jerusalem as capital for the future Palestinian state) – and the remarkable fact that Netanyahu’s own Likud party, the largest coalition partner, has never, ever, accepted even the concept of the two-state solution.

The strategy is clear: to play for time and keep on pouring concrete (there are now some 600,000 Israeli settlers in the occupied territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem) until a Palestinian state, as anything more than a scattered archipelago in a sea of Israeli territory, becomes a physical impossibility. Recent settlement expansion plans aimed at isolating Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and effectively dividing the West Bank in two at its narrow ‘waist’, are bringing that end-state ever closer.

Israel rightly feels that it can rely on enduring American support, no matter what. But it can also read the signs of an increasingly alienated world opinion – which puts a premium on maintaining the line that it is only Palestinian intransigence and disunity that prevents a peace deal. Israel complains of having no ‘partner for peace’. PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, Israel’s counter-party, has repeatedly shown himself reasonable and accommodating almost to the point of losing domestic credibility. But he speaks, it can be argued, for only half the Palestinians – no deal negotiated with Abbas could be relied on while the rejectionists of Hamas remain in charge of Gaza.

Keeping Hamas out in the cold is a core concern of those within Israel who wish to avoid the sort of concessions that a two-state solution would require

Keeping Hamas out in the cold, proscribed as a ‘terrorist organisation’ by both US and EU, is thus a core concern of those within Israel who wish to avoid the sort of concessions that a two-state solution would require. And, with volleys of rockets being indiscriminately unleashed over recent weeks in the direction of Israeli population centres, the case would not seem hard to make. Hamas must be treated as a pariah unless and until it meets the so-called Quartet conditions: recognise Israel, renounce violence, accept all previous partial peace accords. Which seems only reasonable – until one realises that to make these moves prior to entering negotiations would, for Hamas, be tantamount to discarding the only cards it has to play before even sitting down at the table. It is as though the British government had told the IRA that it would be glad to negotiate the Good Friday agreement with it as soon as it had renounced any aspiration to alter the extant constitutional arrangements in Northern Ireland. ‘Never talk to terrorists’ is the maxim of those who believe they can ultimately impose their will by force.

Hamas, moreover, can claim more popular legitimacy than the IRA ever could. It was, after all, chosen by the people of Gaza to govern them the last time they were able to express their views through the ballot box, in 2006 – an election which, indeed, delivered a plurality of votes for Hamas across the occupied territories. The West, however, has not had a good track record at respecting the results of democratic elections where they have resulted in victories for Islamist parties — see also Algeria, or Egypt. So the EU, under pressure from the Bush administration, decided to leave Hamas’s political wing on its terror organisations list (where it had first placed it, alongside the military wing, during Hamas’s suicide bombing campaign in 2003). And Israel instituted its siege of Gaza.

‘Never talk to terrorists’ is the maxim of those who believe they can ultimately impose their will by force

The importance to Netanyahu of keeping Hamas ‘beyond the pale’ may be judged by the vehemence with which he denounced the latest effort at Fatah/Hamas reconciliation. Following on from the collapse of the Kerry-sponsored peace talks, the rival Palestinian movements agreed to establish a neutral or technocratic administration to oversee new elections across both the West Bank and Gaza. The fact that the EU welcomed this move, and that the US refrained from condemning it, no doubt heightened Netanyahu’s concern that he could soon find himself faced with a united, newly-legitimated Palestinian front, whose rejectionist elements might be sufficiently tamed and diluted to demand acceptance as an authoritative negotiating partner. So Netanyahu was quick to pre-emptively rule out any such possibility – and to take the fight to Hamas with the arrest of hundreds of their activists on the West Bank, on the (still unsubstantiated) basis that they must have been responsible for the murder of three abducted Israeli teenagers. And thus was set in train the latest cycle of violence.

Random rocket fire into Israel is indeed terrorism. No doubt Hamas would be tempted to echo the Netanyahu question: ‘what would you do?’. As they have made clear with their persistent rejections of cease-fires in the latest round of fighting unless the seven-year siege of Gaza were simultaneously addressed, they see no way out of what UK Prime Minister David Cameron once termed ‘a giant open prison’ unless by lashing out and forcing the world to pay attention. Of course, they are as wrong in this as is Netanyahu in implying that violence, largely at the expense of civilians, is the only option. Once the current round of mayhem subsides, Hamas must resume the effort to begin manoeuvring out of its rejectionist dead-end which it signalled with its reconciliation deal with Fatah. But it will not do this without help; condemned and isolated as a ‘terrorist organisation’, and confronted with Quartet pre-conditions which look to it like a demand for pre-emptive surrender, it will hunker down and concentrate on refilling its arsenals.

Someone, then, needs to find the courage to try to bring Hamas in from the cold. Israeli control of the US Congress precludes any chance that the US could move. Which puts the onus on the Europeans. Talking to ‘terrorists’ is always risky. But without political leaders in London and Dublin prepared to run such risks, Northern Ireland would today still be the province of the gunman and the bomber. Unless they find comparable courage, today’s European leaders will bear a significant part of the moral responsibility when the next round of mutual terror and blood-shed in an unbroken cycle of violence casts its pall over Israel and Palestine.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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