December 26, 2012

Negotiating with Hamas, but for the wrong reason?

Whether to advance a peace agreement leading to a Palestinian state or to consolidate the status quo, an Israeli government will probably be talking to Hamas before too long.

Twenty years ago, Israeli law prohibited any Israeli citizen from contact with the Palestine Liberation. As Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir put it, talking to the PLO would lead to the unacceptable establishment of a Palestinian state. And center-left politicians, including Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres agreed. So when Rabin became the PM and Peres his Foreign Minister, they pursued indirect contacts with the PLO precisely because they had realized that a separate Palestinian state was indispensable to Israel's long-term stability.

Today, the idea of "a PLO state bordering Israel" sounds pretty bad, but it remains the official preference of the Government of Israel... even if the actions of Israel's current leadership seem to be making that outcome progressively less likely. When President Ronald Reagan authorized the U.S. Government to talk directly with the PLO 24 years ago, the PLO was still on the State Department's list of Foreign Terror Organizations -- as is Hamas today.

But it was still the Cold War, PLO leader Yasir Arafat had met the specific conditions the United States had pledged to Israel, and Vice-President George H.W. Bush had already won the election to succeed the departing Reagan. There was little Israel or American Jewish organizations could do beyond calling for strict controls. Within five years, partly thanks to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and serious strong-arming by then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the Bush administration helped set the stage for the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Today, the memory of Hamas terror is constantly refreshed by new attacks on Israeli civilians, and Hamas leaders speak regularly of destroying Israel. The PLO once acted the same way, and that bitter legacy will never be erased. And yet, the Oslo Accords were signed between Israel and the PLO, and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas is generally seen as the best chance for a moderate Palestinian leader willing to make a final deal with Israel.

Hamas grew out of an affiliation with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, and today it controls Gaza (formalized thanks to a 2006 legislative election pushed through by the administration of President Bush's son, George W. Bush). And the State Department lists Hamas as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, because... well, it is one.

Back in the 1980s, when Shamir's government was trying to play up local West Bank "village leagues" as nationalist-free Palestinian alternatives to the exiled PLO, it was also finding ways to bolster Hamas in Gaza for the same purpose. The PLO was seen as the greater threat to Israel, including in Gaza. 

Today, despite the role of Hamas in launching or allowing actual terror attacks against Israel, the right-wing sentiment of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government preserves the same equation as Shamir did 25 years ago. Not because the PLO is launching terror attacks, but because the PLO is pushing for a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Even worse, for Israeli politicians from Israel's ruling Likud Party and those further to the right, a Palestinian state "alongside" Israel will include major parts of the West Bank -- ALL of which (and not just the dense settlements blocs bordering the Green Line) they consider unconditionally as part of Israel. The PLO has both the capacity and the legitimacy -- internationally and even in Israeli policy -- to run a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank, and eventually in Gaza, but not without the consent of its two million-plus Palestinian constituents in those areas. 

The Gaza visit by exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal earlier this month recalls Arafat's own "homecoming" nearly two decades ago. In this case, Meshaal is seen as more moderate than the Hamas leaders on the ground in Gaza, but the movement's appeal as a foil to Abbas and the PLO is salient.

Israel will eventually be in a position where it sits down at the table with Hamas -- as unthinkable as that prospect sounds today -- whether as a tactic to further undermine the PLO's clout and further limit the chance for any future peace deal, or as some future Israeli leader's strategy to re-engage all Palestinian factions toward just such a peace. As a sign of the former, in 2012 a commission handpicked by Netanyahu determined that the West Bank, including the hundreds of thousands of settlers (or residents of the ever-expanding "Jerusalem"), is not in fact "occupied territory". [I've posted earlier about how Israel invokes the claims of "military occupation" alternately as justification and canard.]

Netanyahu still claims with a straight face that Abbas' actions undermine direct talks toward a negotiated agreement, yet his response to such Palestinian incitement is... to undermine direct talks toward a negotiated agreement. This includes his most recent announcement of new construction in the area designated as E-1.

Undermining Abbas and denying Hamas are both useful tools for pushing back the horizon for any Israeli West Bank withdrawal, but eventually the chance to kill off Abbas' thread of Palestinian moderation may overshadow the urge to isolate Gaza terrorists -- if Netanyahu can use them for that purpose. Meanwhile, he has a perfect and largely accurate comeback to those criticizing his lack of peace etiquette: Abbas and the PLO cannot claim to represent all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, though in no small part due to Netanyahu's own policies. And when last year it appeared the PLO and Hamas would reconcile to form a joint Palestinian government, Netanyahu immediately ruled out talks with any Palestinian leadership that includes Hamas. 

The Middle East Quartet, and the Western powers hoping to normalize Israel's status along with that of the Palestinians -- especially the United States -- will be openly pleased to see any Israeli overtures to Hamas. But privately, they will understand Netanyahu's motivations and their own inability to challenge such an ostensibly peace-minded initiative.

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