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.- Published 6/7/2009 © bitterlemons.org
As attempts to revive a political process between Palestinians and Israelis gather steam, it is useful to look at past, failed attempts to draw lessons. One conclusion that can be reached is that not only should Hamas be part of a political process; any such process will not be successful without the movement.
For starters, Hamas won the last parliamentary elections. It then ousted Palestinian Authority security forces in Gaza. It is simply too influential and powerful to be ignored. However, its strength and influence are not the only reasons it must be included.
Over the past years, Hamas has sent several signals to the parties of the political process that it is in fact interested in participating. The first such signal came from the movement's founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who accepted the idea of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders to live without hostility alongside Israel. He proposed the idea of a long-term "hudna" to describe this state of affairs.
Then there was the 2007 Saudi-sponsored Mecca Agreement between Fateh and Hamas. That agreement saw the main Palestinian factions form a unity government under Hamas with a political platform that explicitly accepted and respected international legality and the relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions as well as the Arab initiative. It committed the unity government to a political process and a rejection of violence.
Probably the last in this line of signals was the June 25 speech by the head of Hamas' political bureau, Khalid Mishaal, who praised the Cairo speech of US President Barrack Obama, expressed a willingness to enter into a dialogue with the United States and reiterated Hamas' support for the idea of a two-state solution.
The problem is that all these signals have never been reciprocated either by Israel or the US. This has left Hamas with little incentive and weakened the more moderate elements in the movement. In fact, the approach of the international community in dealing with Hamas has been a stick-and-stick approach. That is probably a result of the unholy alliance that recently existed between the very right-wing US administration under George W. Bush and the equally right-wing Israeli government headed by Ariel Sharon. These two governments were ideological rather than pragmatic in the way they dealt with Hamas.
Oddly, that approach was implemented in parallel to a policy toward the Palestinian Authority that weakened Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate president of the PA, rather than strengthening him. Thus, the Israeli government refused to deal with Abbas as a partner for peace, rendering him to a certain extent irrelevant, and consequently strengthened the argument of the more radical elements in Hamas.
With Palestinian factions currently engaged in a painful reconciliation process sponsored by Egypt, now might not be the time for the international community to engage directly with Hamas. Nevertheless, international actors should help stimulate the Palestinian national dialogue by offering incentives to the different factions to agree to form a unity government. Such a government is an absolute prerequisite for progress in any political process with Israel.
Such international incentives will also encourage the relatively moderate elements in Hamas and weaken their opponents inside the movement. The most important such incentive would be the willingness of the United States and Israel to deal directly with any national unity government that includes both Fateh and Hamas.- Published 6/7/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Try including Hamas
by Shlomo Brom
Hamas represents a significant segment of Palestinian society, which is basically conservative and religious. It is difficult to ascertain accurately how large this segment is. In the January 2006 elections, 44.45 percent voted for the Hamas list. That percentage was composed of hardcore supporters along with floating votes that change their voting patterns frequently. In the last PSR survey, Hamas was supported by 33 percent of those surveyed. It can be assumed that at least a third of the Palestinians generally support Hamas and its policies--a level of support that cannot be ignored.
This implies that, first, it is doubtful whether any Palestinian leader would be capable of concluding a permanent status agreement with Israel without Hamas. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, for example, could not conclude an agreement with Israeli PM Ehud Olmert last year because he was not capable of making the necessary concessions on sensitive issues, such as resolution of the refugee problem, knowing that a formidable political adversary would use his concessions against him. Concessions can be made only from a position of political strength.
Second, even if an agreement is concluded, Hamas can play the spoiler and prevent implementation. This argument became particularly valid after the Hamas military takeover of Gaza in 2007. Thus, no Israel-PLO agreement can be implemented in Gaza, and Hamas can use its control to initiate military escalation and prevent implementation even in the West Bank. There is also grave concern in Israel that any withdrawal from the West Bank would lead sooner or later to a Hamas takeover there, at which point the agreement would be worthless.
Third, with this level of support Hamas is not going to disappear soon. The current paradigm adopted by the government of Israel after the 2006 Hamas electoral victory, combining economic pressure on Gaza with support for the Abbas government in the West Bank, is failing. The level of support for Hamas has decreased only in a limited way; actually, support for Hamas increased again in the West Bank after the recent fighting in Gaza. Anyway, these fluctuations in political support for Hamas have no real effect on the robustness of its control over Gaza.
This explains why including Hamas in the political process is quite essential. But is it also feasible? I would argue that, since it joined the Palestinian domestic arena, Hamas has shown a clear interest in being included in the political process; this interest was only strengthened when Hamas won the 2006 elections, thereby itself becoming the government. This is reflected in the prisoners' document and the Hamas-Fateh agreement that allowed the establishment of a national unity government. Both sanction negotiations with Israel, to be carried out by President Abbas.
Then too, Hamas offers the idea of a long-term armistice ("hudna") with Israel. This became the movement's official position when Khalid Mishaal, Hamas political bureau chief, said in a speech on June 25 that Hamas supports the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines, with Jerusalem as its capital and a solution of the refugee problem based on the right of return.
This is the basic PLO negotiating stand, though it differs with some current PLO positions. For Hamas it brings about an armistice, not an end of conflict. During negotiations with Israel, the PLO also agreed on interpretations and implementation mechanisms for these principles that Hamas does not adhere to, such as a swap between limited-size settlement blocs and Israeli territories to be transferred to the Palestinian state, as well as practical solutions to the refugee problem that would allow only a small number to return to Israel.
Hamas' positions can be interpreted in two ways. Proponents of engagement of Hamas would argue that they indicate acceptance by Hamas of the two-state solution--in effect, this is Hamas' way of climbing down from its ideological tree. Hamas needs time and proof of success of the two-state solution to modify its ideology any further. Opponents of engagement would argue that this is a tactical move by Hamas aimed at gaining recognition by the West and eventually bringing about an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, yet without giving up its ideological principles and while maintaining the option of resuming the war with Israel later.
These two alternative interpretations lead to the last question: does including Hamas in the political process serve Israeli interests? My answer would be that it is worth trying as long as it means including Hamas but not replacing the current Palestinian partners in the process. Only Hamas participation will enable us to determine whether it has really reconciled with the two-state solution, at which point it is better to realize that solution with Hamas included and supportive.
At first, Hamas will probably prefer to stand on the sidelines and let the PLO negotiate with Israel. But it could later be drawn into more active participation, depending on the political situation in the PA and the nature of the relationship between the two rival Palestinian political camps.- Published 6/7/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom is a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
The world must engage Hamas
an interview with Ahmed Yousef
bitterlemons: There are a lot of efforts at the moment to restart a political process between Palestinians and Israel. Can such a process gain any traction without some kind of participation of Hamas?
Yousef: I don't think any political process can succeed if we don't have national reconciliation. That comes first, and then we, as Palestinians, can decide on the rest of the issues. Mahmoud Abbas [Abu Mazen] has negotiated with Israel for many years, and these negotiations have achieved nothing. I don't think anyone will want to continue such negotiations.
We have to achieve national reconciliation. Then we can decide on the direction, whether, for example, there will be negotiations with Israel as long as it continues its expansionist policy. Even Abu Mazen has said he will not talk to the Israelis while they are building settlements in the West Bank. So no one wants to talk to the Israelis, whether Hamas or Abu Mazen, for now. Nothing will happen at least until Israel stops its expansionist policies.
bitterlemons: There appears to be pressure on Israel from the US to end its settlement expansion. How real do you think this pressure is?
Yousef: It is good to hear that the US for the first time is trying to put some pressure on Israel, because the settlements are the greatest obstacle to any solution. Any chance for a Palestinian state will disappear if Israel continues with its settlement expansion.
It is now the challenge for the US to prove if those wonderful words we heard recently from US President Barrack Obama can cause any change on the ground. We need to see tangible results on the issue of settlements. If the US succeeds in this, then Arab and Muslim confidence that the US can play an even-handed role will be restored. If such trust is built, then we can ourselves try to give the Americans some leverage to assume their role as honest brokers.
bitterlemons: What can the international community do to encourage the national unity talks in Cairo?
Yousef: Palestinians need national reconciliation. Without reconciliation there will be no recognized government and the division will continue. So everyone should push for national reconciliation. Such reconciliation will create a government that will first of all work toward holding the next elections. Once we have elections there will be a new government.
I don't know who will win new elections, but it is unlikely that anyone will garner a clear majority. It is likely we will have a coalition government. Whoever joins such a government should be allowed to do so without foreign interference, and Hamas cannot accept any foreign interference in the way we have now with the Quartet conditions. And right now, these conditions are simply a hurdle in the way of national reconciliation.
bitterlemons: How important would it be if the international community sent a clear signal that it would unconditionally deal with any Palestinian government?
Yousef: We've heard from many European and American sources that they will deal with a national unity government if we agree to one.
bitterlemons: But nothing has been made public. People say this through backchannels and in personal meetings, but there is still no clear public position...
Yousef: This is because the Obama administration is still clinging to these three [Quartet] conditions. But we have heard through backchannels that if there is a unity government and Hamas is a part, the US will not interfere and nor should anyone else.
It is unfair, basically. These conditions are placed on the Palestinians, yet Israel does not respect the will of the world community and it does not respect or honor agreements signed with Palestinians. Why should the world take action only against the Palestinians and say nothing about Israeli violations?
bitterlemons: Recently, Khalid Mishaal came out very clearly saying he welcomed the new tone from the US and that Hamas would accept a Palestinian state on pre-1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital and the right of return of refugees. Do you think Hamas has gone as far as it can to convince the world that it can be a part of a political process?
Yousef: After hearing that speech, the world should open its channels and engage with Hamas in a serious discussion to reach a peaceful settlement. Hamas has shown enough ideological flexibility to convince the world that it can do business with Hamas. Hamas is part of the solution, not the problem. If there are serious intentions in Washington to solve the Palestinian issue, this is the right time.
bitterlemons: In view of that speech, how is Hamas' position different from the PLO position?
Yousef: We have never said we would surrender inalienable Palestinian rights, guaranteed by United Nations resolutions, including Resolution 194. We have accepted a state on pre-1967 borders, but the issue of refugees is an issue that we say must be part of the solution and cannot be neglected. The world needs to work seriously on this. What is the answer to the right of return, how can the issue be addressed and what should be done with the 6.5 million refugees? These questions must be answered in detail.
Our political vision is based on a truce and there are still many details to solve. But in general, we have accepted a Palestinian state on pre-1967 borders. That should send the signal that we are willing to help the international community lay the foundation for a peaceful settlement to the conflict.- Published 6/7/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ahmed Yousef is a senior advisor at the Foreign Ministry in Gaza.
To be unsubscribed from the mailing list, simply click on the link:
Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively.
Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.