Time for new Israeli thinking

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The victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections in early 2006 and the forceful takeover of Gaza by Hamas in the summer of 2007 were watersheds in the history of the Palestinian national movement. They signified the end of an era that lasted for close to half a century in which the PLO enjoyed virtually monopolistic domination of the Palestinian movement. The defeats of the PLO and Fateh were part of a regional phenomenon–the decline of secular nationalism–that extended far beyond Palestinian politics and was plain for all to see throughout the Middle East.

The Hamas rise to prominence was thus no accident but part of a profound and lasting historical process. It was therefore not very realistic from the outset to assume that Palestinian society could be engineered by the pressure of external powers like Israel to correct its "error" of electing Hamas and coerced into reinstating the PLO and Fateh. The Israeli political and economic blockade, not surprisingly, failed to have the desired effect and Hamas not only weathered the storm but emerged from it relatively unscathed and probably even stronger than before.

But Hamas’ staying power went to its head. Its indiscretion, coupled with Iranian pressure, brought Hamas to the point of provoking the recent Israeli onslaught on Gaza. The war has cost Hamas dearly–not so much in its standing versus the PLO and Fateh but in terms of its image in the eyes of the people of Gaza.

It is the people who have paid the price of the movement’s rash and irresponsible behavior, while the leaders took to their underground bunkers in Gaza or their secure residences in Damascus. No amount of "victory" parades on the ruins of Gaza will change this grim reality, while the PLO leadership and significant components of the Arab media miss no opportunity to remind the Palestinian people of these uncomfortable facts. Hamas has simultaneously exposed itself to greater Egyptian, Israeli and international pressure to desist from its prolonged armed confrontation with Israel.

While the war in Gaza is cause for a Hamas "reality check", it would seem to be time for the Israelis to do the same. Hamas cannot wish Israel away, just as Israel cannot hope for Hamas to disappear. Moreover Israel itself, in launching the war in Gaza, did not seek to demolish Hamas. Weighing between the options of reoccupying Gaza or leaving it in a Somalia-like state of chaos, Israel deliberately chose to leave Hamas in place after seeking to coerce the organization into accepting that the cost of continued rockets aimed at Israel would be prohibitive. In other words, Israel seems to have come to the realistic conclusion that it is preferable after all to have a tamed, albeit hostile but efficient neighbor in charge rather than a more friendly but feeble and ineffective alternative.

If Hamas reasserts its control of the Gaza Strip and a lasting ceasefire is kept in place, two further steps will become part of the immediate agenda: the formation of a Palestinian government of national unity and the restarting of some form of Palestinian-Israeli negotiation. Considering the present level of enmity between Hamas and the PLO/Fateh, a government of national unity is anything but a foregone conclusion. At the same time, however, it is difficult to imagine meaningful progress in any negotiation with Israel that does not have at least the acquiescence of Hamas.

Israel ought to recognize the current realities for what they are and should not reject out of hand a Palestinian national unity government that includes Hamas. Such a government would enable Israel and Hamas to come down off their high horses and communicate indirectly without either having to concede on major issues of principle just for the sake of resuming meaningful Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. If Hamas’ leaders were to refuse to take this route, the responsibility would be theirs and it is they who would have to face the consequences of their decisions and the opprobrium of more moderate Arab players within the Palestinian community and without.

It is time for Hamas to decide whether to take its cues from the radicals in Tehran or the moderates in Cairo. Needless to say, if Hamas proves incapable or unwilling to impose a stable ceasefire, progress on internal Palestinian unity or on the peace front will hardly be likely. In such circumstances, Israel and Hamas will sooner or later be back at war with each other and the Israelis and Hamas will have no need to face the question of whether or not to talk to each other outside of the battlefield–directly, indirectly or in any other fashion. But if the ceasefire holds, the time will have come for Israel and Hamas to rethink their respective policies on negotiations.

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