How will Israel deal with a political Hamas?

The decision by PLO/PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to integrate Hamas into Palestinian politics could have far-reaching ramifications for the way Israel addresses political dialogue with the Palestinians.

Hamas is currently defined by Israel, and by much of the world, as a terrorist organization. It has never in any way accepted Israel’s right to exist or expressed a readiness to sign a peace treaty ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the other hand, Abbas’ approach to Hamas conceivably presents a working model for the peaceful transformation of radical Islamist movements into legitimate political actors within a democratic system. How should Israel react?

Hamas intends to continue participating in Palestinian Authority local elections and to run in national elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council in July. Judging by its success in the last round of municipal elections, when it won a majority of the local councils contested in Gaza, and in view of the current disarray within the ranks of Fateh and that organization’s corrupt image in the eyes of the Palestinian public, Hamas could register considerable gains in elections and possibly demand to play a role in the next Palestinian Authority government. The election results are also expected to determine the balance of forces between Fateh and Hamas within the PLO, assuming current understandings are maintained and Hamas is brought into that umbrella organization. In the words of Hamas leader Khaled Mishal, we will soon encounter "a PLO in which Fateh no longer has a monopoly".

Of particular note is the impression that Hamas will continue, at least for the time being, to maintain an armed force. In other words, even under conditions of ceasefire, it will be an Islamist political party with a militia and a terrorist potential.

In this context, the reasons for Hamas’ decision to enter the political arena are pertinent. In 1996 Hamas boycotted the Legislative Council elections, arguing that the Oslo accords under which the elections were held awarded legitimacy to Israel–legitimacy that Hamas refuses to acknowledge. Now elections will be held under a different voting system and for a larger council than those specified by Oslo, and in a vastly different post-intifada reality.

Hamas also has pragmatic reasons for changing its mind. On the one hand, the movement today is simply far more powerful and popular than in 1996, and its leaders know it has a better chance of landing a larger percentage of the Council seats than it had back then. On the other, Israeli and American hardline policies toward Islamic terrorism, coupled with the Bush administration’s emphasis on Arab democratic reform, may have influenced a Hamas decision to opt for a political role alongside of–or possibly even instead of–a "military" one.

The most obvious, and most extreme, Israeli reaction to Hamas’ election to the Palestinian Legislative Council and inclusion in the PLO could be to sever all ties with these bodies. This approach would be based on Israel’s right to refuse to have dealings with a Palestinian movement that rejects its existence. We recall that Yitzhak Rabin only agreed to the Oslo accords after PLO leader Yasser Arafat officially recognized Israel’s existence and abandoned terrorism. Moreover, if Hamas is allowed to retain its terrorist potential, Abbas’ aspiration to disarm the terrorist movements by persuasion and inclusion will look ridiculous.

Yet such an Israeli reaction would in effect signal the demise of any peace or even stabilization process between Israel and the PA/PLO. And it would constitute a setback for the welcome effort to move Hamas away from terror and into politics. Here the American position becomes highly relevant. If the US agrees to redefine Hamas as a political rather than a terrorist organization, this could influence Israeli readiness to continue to deal with Palestinian national institutions in which Hamas is represented. Obviously, the key factor here is whether Hamas indeed abjures any further terrorist activity and is seen to be moderating its views concerning future arrangements with Israel.

In this regard, the possible evolution of a new American approach to Hizballah, the militant Shi’ite organization in Lebanon, could also be relevant. State Department sources have already intimated that Washington might acquiesce in Hizballah’s entry into Lebanese politics if it abandons terrorism and severs its political and operational ties with Syria. Hence US recognition of Hizballah could serve as a precedent for US acceptance of a political role for Hamas.

Any future Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations held in an era when Hamas has direct and formal influence on the Palestinian position are likely to be even more difficult than in the past. Hamas, which considers the Land of Israel/Palestine to be consecrated Islamic soil, would almost certainly refuse to sign an "end of conflict" agreement that formalizes Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, opting instead for some sort of long term "truce". It would presumably also take tougher positions than did the PLO at Camp David on issues like the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, the right of return, and the status of the 200,000 Israelis who live across the green line in Jerusalem.

On the other hand, were Israel to seek a long term interim agreement that, by definition, leaves open final status issues–as PM Sharon has intimated–it could conceivably find a more willing partner in Hamas than in PLO/Fateh.