Test Hamas intentions separately

On June 25, Hamas leader Khalid Mishaal gave an important speech, one seemingly designed to follow up on major policy pronouncements regarding the Middle East delivered earlier by US President Barack Obama and Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu. The element that drew the most attention in Mishaal’s presentation was his declared readiness to accept "the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state within the borders of 4 June 1967 with Jerusalem as its capital." To some observers, it appeared that Hamas was agreeing to enter into a political peace process based on the two-state solution.

This was not the first time a Hamas leader voiced acceptance of a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines. Mishaal and others have mentioned it in interviews and high-level meetings in the course of the past year or two. Now Mishaal has seemingly declared this to be official policy. This by no means constitutes acceptance by Hamas of a two-state solution: nowhere does Mishaal recognize such a solution or even Israel’s existence on the other side of those 1967 lines. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that this is a step toward moderation on the part of the Palestinian Islamist movement. As such, it should be welcomed and efforts should be made to engage Hamas and encourage additional moderation.

But does this render Hamas a "player" in the "process", and if so, what process?

In his June 25 speech, Mishaal reiterated additional, more traditional Hamas positions that cannot be ignored. Most significantly, he wants "implementation of the right of return" of more than five million 1948 refugees. This, he states, is "a general national right and an individual right that. . . no leader or negotiator can forfeit or concede." True, the PLO too has never officially renounced the demand for comprehensive return. Still, it has frequently demonstrated a readiness to negotiate compromise arrangements. The PLO also agrees to negotiate peace and a two-state solution, where Hamas does not. And the PLO has revoked the objectionable parts of its charter, whereas Hamas still officially believes in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Hence it is not surprising that Mishaal also insists that Hamas "cling to resistance as a strategic option to free the homeland". To drive home the point, he demands that Obama remove General Keith Dayton, because the Palestinian Authority security forces Dayton has trained and deployed on the West Bank are "targeting the resistance and its weapons" there. In other words, the "resistance" Mishaal wants to maintain is terrorism based in the West Bank (and Gaza) and aimed at Israelis inside the 1967 lines. This places him completely at odds with PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas, who condemns Palestinian violence.

Mishaal praises "Obama’s new rhetoric" and sees it as a step toward direct dialogue with the US, without preconditions. Herein lies the key dilemma for the US, Israel and the West Bank-based PLO. Mishaal is trying to position Hamas better to gain international acceptance and enter into the Palestinian unity government that the Egyptians are energetically trying to form. Membership in such a government implies participation in elections next January and acceptance of a joint negotiating position vis-a-vis Israel. For its part, Israel understands that ultimately there can be no successful solution–two-state or of some other nature–without the involvement of Hamas and the Gaza Strip it controls.

The Egyptian efforts have thus far failed; the ideological, political and historic gap between Hamas and the PLO remains significant. On the other hand, the rest of the world is indeed "warming up" to Hamas, as evidenced in recent meetings in Gaza and Damascus involving former US president Jimmy Carter, low-level European diplomats and others. Mishaal’s latest remarks are designed to hasten that process.

The writing is on the wall: if Israel doesn’t take some initiative regarding Hamas, others will, bypassing Israel and conceivably ill serving its interests. Israel currently communicates with Hamas through Egypt’s good offices. Yet all Egypt’s attempts to mediate a stable ceasefire and a prisoner exchange have failed. Cairo, lest we forget, has its own legitimate interests regarding Hamas–keeping it out of Sinai and away from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and in general making sure it is Israel’s problem, not Egypt’s–that its mediating efforts are designed to serve. Hamas, for its part, states that it will stabilize and extend the ceasefire in return for an Israeli decision to open the passages linking Gaza and Israel. Israel by now should have learned that the economic boycott of Gaza is counterproductive insofar as it weakens the otherwise neutral Gazan population and strengthens Hamas’ grip on the Strip.

Now is the time for Israel to unilaterally reopen the passages and offer to negotiate a ceasefire and prisoner-exchange directly with Hamas. Better to test any possible Hamas inclinations toward moderation directly. But until and unless Hamas becomes genuinely reasonable and moderate, better to deal separately at this point in time with the PLO in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.