Jerusalem - As Palestinian leaders set off for Mecca this week in the latest effort at Hamas-Fatah peace talks, well-placed sources in Jerusalem were speaking of growing doubts within Israeli officialdom over the current policy of boycotting Hamas.
“People in different government agencies are well aware of the problematic nature of the present policy and are concerned by the growing risk of the collapse of the Palestinian Authority,” said Gidi Grinstein, director of the Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank that regularly advises government officials.
The Mecca talks are aimed at bringing the secular Fatah and the militant Islamist Hamas together in a Palestinian unity government, which Arab leaders hope will be acceptable to Israel and the West as a negotiating partner. The P.A. has been under a crippling international quarantine, both economic and diplomatic, since Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections and took control of the government a year ago. Western powers, led by the United States and the European Union, insist that the boycott can only be lifted when Hamas meets three conditions: recognizing Israel, swearing off violence and accepting previously signed Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the P.A., seeks to bring Hamas into a national unity government that would honor the three conditions even if Hamas itself does not.
Israeli leaders have expressed unwillingness to cooperate with the plan. “Compromising with extremists will not promote anything, but it can lead to further stagnation,” Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told Abbas at a recent meeting in Switzerland.
However, growing numbers of Israeli security experts are urging Jerusalem to overcome its misgivings and open a channel to Hamas. Retired Major General Shlomo Gazit, a former chief of military intelligence, called the three conditions laid down by Israel and its Western allies “ridiculous, or an excuse not to negotiate.”
“Only a country that suffers from an inferiority complex demands that everyone like it,” said Gazit, currently an analyst at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. “We must negotiate on concrete problems — not on declarative issues. I am in favor of starting negotiations today, while the violence continues, and to sign an agreement which will go into effect when it stops. Why should Palestinians stop fighting against us until they know we are willing to make an agreement?”
On the Palestinian side, voices inside and outside Hamas argue that the Islamic movement effectively has recognized Israel, and that the differences between Fatah, which Israel sees as a partner, and Hamas are now largely meaningless.
“The only difference is that Fatah recognized Israel, while Hamas offers a hudna,” said Bir Zeit University political scientist Ali Jarbawi, using an Arabic word for long-term truce. “The difference is in semantics rather than reality.”
In particular, Palestinians and Israeli analysts point to a January 10 interview in which Khaled Meshal, Hamas’s notorious hardline political chief in Damascus, told Reuters that he recognized Israel’s existence, though not its legitimacy. “As a Palestinian today, I speak of a Palestinian and Arab demand for a state on 1967 borders,” Meshaal said. “It is true that in reality there will be an entity or state called Israel on the rest of Palestinian land.”
Hamas has also eased its hard-line rejection of previous agreements with Israel, saying it would “respect” them. Israel, the United States and Abbas himself are demanding that Hamas “commit” itself to the agreements.
Still, some Palestinian moderates say the Hamas concessions are a start. “Israel should take these signals and deal with them,” said Fatah spokesman Jamal Nazzal. “Hamas has given enough positive signals they would live with a Palestinian state next to Israel. We do not demand they recognize Israel.”
For a broad range of Israelis, including much of the left wing as well as the right, recognition of Israel’s legitimacy is a minimum requirement, and Hamas’s refusal to yield on this point is enough to deny it the international legitimacy it seeks. Some believe that Hamas’s ultimate goal is to destroy Israel, making talks with the Islamist movement a no-go even if it recognized Israel.
“Hamas wants recognition so it can get money and then fight Israel, Judaism and everything else,” said reserve Colonel Shaul Arieli, one of the drafters of the famously left-wing Geneva Initiative.
Countering that view are security experts — also spanning the spectrum from left to right — who argue that reaching out to Hamas may the best of bad alternatives available to Israel. “It may not work, but aren’t we strong enough to be able to try it?” said onetime Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, who was a top adviser to former prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon.
According to Halevy, Israel should take up Hamas’s offer of a long-term truce and try negotiating, because the Islamic movement is respected by Palestinians and generally keeps its word. He pointed to the cease-fire in attacks on Israel that Hamas declared two years ago and has largely honored. “They’re not very pleasant people, but they are very, very credible,” Halevy said.
The question of how to handle Hamas has gained urgency since December with the outbreak of Hamas-Fatah gunbattles in Gaza, which have claimed more than 100 lives so far. Senior Israeli officials hint that the fighting could present an opportunity by weakening the Palestinians. Jerusalem and Washington have channeled assistance to Abbas, in the apparent hope that he will emerge victorious, leaving him in a position to negotiate effectively with Israel.
Others warn that the spreading chaos could lead to the collapse of the P.A. If that happens, “the responsibility on the shoulders of Israel will be enormous — economically, administratively, and militarily,” said Grinstein, the government consultant.
This threat is widely recognized within Israeli government circles, Grinstein said, but policymakers are unable to change course. “The Israeli government is locked between a rock and a hard place. It is Hamas that has the organizational discipline to take decisions and implement them, while Fatah is fragmented with no central control and is engaged in terror against Israel. The dilemma is that ideologically we can’t deal with Hamas and we can deal with Fatah.”
Guy Ma’ayan, a Middle East policy analyst who has advised the government, puts it even more bluntly. “The government,” he said, “has climbed up a tall tree with its anti-Hamas policy and now it doesn’t know how to get down.”
Gazit, however, believes the real reason Israel won’t talk to Hamas is because it is still not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to make peace with the Palestinians.
“Why are we not negotiating with [Syrian President Bashar] Assad?” asked Gazit. “Because we know the price and we aren’t willing to pay. The same goes for the Palestinians.”
Hamas officials, for their part, put the blame largely on Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan. In an interview with the Forward, a high-ranking Hamas member in the West Bank expressed his movement’s readiness to negotiate for a Palestinian state coexisting alongside Israel. The reason for the continued Hamas-Fatah fighting, he said, “is that Dahlan and his men want to be in the government.”
Dahlan is the heir apparent to Abbas and considered close to Washington. Hamas officials accuse him of ordering the initial attacks in Gaza that sparked the last few weeks of clashes.
“They don’t want Hamas to make peace with Israel or negotiate with Israel,” the Hamas aide said, referring to Dahlan and his Fatah allies. “They want Hamas to fight Israel. You know why? Because if Hamas fights Israel, Israel will need Dahlan. If Hamas doesn’t fight Israel, what is the use of Dahlan? They don’t want Hamas to rule or to speak with Israel.”
The Hamas source rejected the notion, widespread in Israel, that Hamas is opposed in principle to negotiations with the Jewish state. “No,” he said. “What is the meaning of a hudna? It means they will sit and agree on many things together, even if it’s through a third party. We told the [Hamas-controlled government] ministries that if their job requires them to sit with the Israelis, they can do it.”