Israel and Hamas: Time to Talk?

Dec 17, 2012

The inconclusive end of the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas in November 2012 raises the questionhardly a new oneof whether Israel should try a different approach to the Islamist group than the military one that it has relied upon so far. Rather than continue to batter Hamas militarily every so often in order to restore its ability to deter its nemesis, perhaps Israel could sit down with Hamas leaders and negotiate a long-term truce?

To some, merely suggesting that Israel negotiate with Hamaswhich Israel, the United States, and European Union consider a terrorist organizationis tantamount to appeasement. Negotiating with terrorists, according to this view, is morally wrong and strategically foolish. Not only does it reward wanton violence against civilians, it also legitimizes and incentivizes such violence. Any concession to terrorism will only embolden terrorists and enhance their public support.

This objection to negotiating with Hamaswidely held by Israeli Jewsis ethically sound, but empirically false. It does seem intuitively wrong to "give in to violence" and to "reward terrorism," which is why governments, including Israel’s, always promise not to negotiate with terrorists. In practice, however, these vows are often broken. There are many examples of governments negotiating with terrorist groups, despite previously vowing never to do so. Sometimes these negotiations are successful and result in a cessation of terrorism, or at least a substantial reduction in violencesuch as the British government’s negotiations with the IRA. Other times, the talks break down and violence continues, or even escalates, as happened in the Spanish government’s previous negotiations with the Basque terrorist group, ETA. These different outcomes demonstrate that talking with terrorists does not necessarily encourage more terrorism. It is wrong, therefore, to simply dismiss the efficacy of negotiating with terrorist groups.

The ethical objection to negotiating with terrorists is moot in the case of Israel and Hamas because Israel has already negotiated with Hamas in the past (for example, over the release of the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit), and is doing so today, through Egyptian mediation, over the implementation of the ceasefire agreement that ended the recent hostilities. The real question, then, is not whether Israel should negotiate with Hamas, but whether these negotiations should be face-to-face and cover a wider range of issues? In other words, should there be direct and broader negotiations between Israel and Hamas, instead of the indirect and limited negotiations that are currently occurring? This is a purely pragmatic issue, not an ethical one.

There are three good arguments against direct Israeli negotiations with Hamas. First, such negotiations would be a major victory for Hamas, enhancing its legitimacy internationally and its popularity domestically. This would further solidify its rule in Gaza and increase its support in the West Bank, possibly enabling it to take over that part of Palestine in the near future.

Second, strengthening Hamas entails weakening its rival Fatah, the more secular nationalist movement led by the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Ever since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, the United States, European Union, and Israel have tried to isolate and weaken Hamas, while financially supporting the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Although it is now widely accepted that this “West Bank first” strategy has utterly failedHamas is still in power and has grown strongerto publicly concede failure and completely abandon this strategy could doom Fatah in general and President Abbas in particular. Since Abbas is probably the most moderate Palestinian leader Israel could hope forthe most committed to non-violence and to a two-state solution to the conflictundermining him by negotiating with Hamas would be yet another blow to the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

The third, and perhaps strongest, argument against negotiating with Hamas is that it would be a completely futile exercise because Hamas is unwilling to compromise. Hamas refuses to renounce violence or recognize Israel, is fundamentally opposed to the two-state solution, and is committed to establishing an Islamic state over all the territory of historic Palestine (Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip). Such extremist positions provide no grounds for belief that negotiations could achieve anything, except Hamas’ legitimization.

Essentially, these arguments boil down to the claim that a peace agreement is not possible with Hamas, but is attainable with Fatah (actually the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization, with which Israel negotiated the Oslo Accords). Negotiating with Hamas and sidelining Fatah, therefore, will only make it harder to achieve a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

It is undoubtedly true that President Abbas is a much more attractive negotiating partner for Israel than Hamas leader Khaled Meshal or its prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh. While Abbas preaches non-violence and has repeatedly indicated a willingness to make concessions on key final status issues, including the Palestinian "right of return" (which is sacrosanct for many Palestinians); Meshal and Haniyeh regularly praise Palestinian "resistance" to Israel (including the use of terrorism) and publicly reject any compromise over the right of return, the status of Jerusalem, or recognizing Israel’s right to exist. Although both men have occasionally made more moderate statements and hinted at their flexibilitymostly in interviews with Western media outletstheir public stances have generally been radical, dogmatic, and uncompromising. There is little chance that such men will miraculously turn into peacemakers any time soon.

Nevertheless, the belligerent public rhetoric of Hamas’s leaders should not necessarily be taken at face value. Some experts on the group argue that what really matters is not its radical rhetoric but its actual behavior, which has become more moderate and responsible since it has been in power (although residents of southern Israel terrorized by Hamas’s rocket attacks would surely question how moderate Hamas has become in practice). If Hamas is, in fact, gradually transitioning from being a resistance movement aimed at Israel’s destruction to a political movement concerned with ruling a Palestinian state that exists alongside Israel, as some observers suggest, then there is much more reason for Israel to negotiate with it. Indeed, by directly negotiating with Hamas, Israel could test whether this purported transition is really taking place and, if it is, such negotiations could further propel this transition.

Even if Hamas is unwilling or unable to completely change, direct and wide-ranging negotiations with it could still be worthwhile for Israel. At a minimum, Hamas might be persuaded to stop arms smuggling into Gaza in return for the complete opening of its borders with Israel and the lifting of Israel’s naval blockade of the coastal enclave (now in effect for more than five years). More significantly, Israel and Hamas could agree on a long-term truce (hudna in Arabic), possibly lasting a decade or more, something that Hamas has previously raised as a possibility. Such an armistice would fall short of the peace that Israelis once yearned forthe conflict would remain unresolvedbut since most Israelis have long since given up their hopes for peace and would happily settle for calm, this may be acceptable to the Israeli public. In fact, by avoiding the most sensitive and intractable issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and aiming for less than full peace and a resolution of the conflict, an agreement between Israel and Hamas might actually stand a better chance of gaining broad public approval on both sides.

Of course, a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, resulting in two states for two peoples (with full equality and national minority rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel), would be preferable to merely a long-term ceasefire. But given the prevailing political conditions in Israel and Palestine, this appears to be increasingly unrealistic. If a two-state solution is not possible, then at least Israelis and Palestinians can stop killing each other for a while.

Hamas is unlikely to ever become a partner for peace with Israel, but it can be a partner for coexistence, albeit a limited and uneasy coexistence. For Israelis and Palestinians this is surely better than no peace at all, which is, alas, the most likely scenario at present. Rather than wait for the inevitable next round of violence between Israel and Hamas, the United States and the rest of the international community should encourage Israel and Hamas to directly negotiate in order to avoid more destruction and bloodshed. There should be no illusions about the potential of these talksthey will not bring peacenor of the drawbacks involvedHamas will benefit and Fatah will suffer. Instead, we must simply accept that the alternative is probably worse. The choice is not an armistice agreement between Israel and Hamas or a peace agreement between Israel and the PLO. It is really a choice between a possible truce or certain war.

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