Problematic option

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Hamas’ conditions for a long-term hudna or ceasefire, as relayed by a few Israelis who have met with relatively low-ranking Hamas officials, are almost too good to be true. Refugee right of return and Jerusalem can wait for some other process; Hamas will suffice with the 1967 borders, more or less, and in return will guarantee peace and quiet for ten, 25 or 30 years of good neighborly relations and confidence-building.
While these reports are thought-provoking, they are also significant for what they don’t say. What about the Hamas charter with its rampant anti-Semitism and its militant Islamist commitment to Israel’s destruction? Will the Hamas-led Palestinian state be allowed to continue importing weapons and explosives, building up an army and preaching the ultimate destruction of Israel, as it has in recent months? And when will the Hamas senior leadership, both in Gaza and Damascus, openly reiterate these favorable conditions instead of insisting publicly that Israel give it everything that the PLO wants in exchange for peace, including Jerusalem and the right of return–in return for a ceasefire?

A recent New York Times op-ed by a senior Hamas leader promised a virtual Garden of Eden of advantages and benefits for both sides in a hudna, but failed to deal with these troublesome questions. One gets the impression that Hamas believes a good PR campaign will yield the lifting of international sanctions without the need to make any real and immediate concessions.

The price for talking to Hamas face-to-face about the possibility of a long-term hudna appears to be a short-term hudna, or ceasefire, first. At some point in the not too distant future, that may end up as the only viable course of action. But the price we would pay is heavy: bestowing a degree of legitimization on a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood that seeks our disappearance; de-legitimizing those Palestinians, led by Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas), who declare they seek a viable two-state solution; and opening the door to international pressures to make additional concessions to Hamas.

At this point in time, Abu Mazen is striving to gain Hamas’ agreement to dismantle its government and replace it with a seemingly "non-political" one that Hamas would nevertheless control through its trusted proxies. In the event that he succeeds, Abu Mazen’s status as a negotiating partner might be strengthened and we might confront the prospect of negotiating the next step with a more united and more moderate Palestinian leadership. Abu Mazen’s chances of success are slim. Still, it is worth our while to wait another month or two and give him a chance.

If he fails, we face three alternative courses of action: negotiating with him anyway despite his weakness and lack of authority; escalating our military response to Hamas in Gaza; or dropping two of our and the Quartet’s three conditions (recognition of our existence and acceptance of past agreements) and sufficing with a Hamas ceasefire (the third condition) in order to begin cautiously exploring the possibilities of a hudna, long- and short-term.

If we opt for the third course, we must seek prior coordination of the loosening of the Quartet’s conditions, particularly with the United States and the European Union as well as with our Arab neighbors. We must demand that Hamas revise its charter. And we must insist on meaningful negotiations with the most senior Hamas leadership (no third party emissaries) in order to test its commitment to a set of reasonable demands that would make a hudna, with all its limitations, more attractive than the other options.

One way or another, the Olmert government does not have much time to waste. There are growing indications that if it doesn’t take the political initiative, various international actors will. In this regard, yet another option that should be weighed in Jerusalem is accepting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s invitation to renew negotiations, and testing his intentions. A successful Syrian- Israeli track would place the problematic Palestinian issue on the back burner–where it really belongs until an authoritative and moderate leadership emerges.

Meanwhile, Israel has its own problems with leadership. Olmert appears to have failed to exploit his recent US trip to discuss new departures with President George W. Bush, an obvious prerequisite to a new initiative. Based on his performance thus far, the Israeli prime minister seems singularly unsuited for sifting out the options and proceeding with the best one, whether a hudna or something else.

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Yossi Alpher is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Barak. He is featured on Media Monitors Network (MMN) with the courtesy of Bitter Lemons.

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