Know Thine Enemy

By Yossi Alpher

Published February 10, 2006, issue of February 10, 2006.
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Because Israel and Palestine are more than neighbors — because they are almost Siamese twins, difficult and dangerous to separate — it seems inevitable that, despite the barriers of ideology and antisemitism, despite Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel and Israel’s refusal to talk to bigots who don’t recognize it, eventually the two will simply have to talk.

Somewhere deep down in its Islamist psyche, Hamas understands that running the government of Palestine means dealing with the Jews next door in an equitable and civilized manner. And Israelis appreciate that Gaza and the West Bank are not Lebanon and Syria, with which Israel has virtually no contact; that there is a need for local links to adjudicate sewage disposal matters, enable Gazan strawberries to reach Europe and in general ensure that Palestinians don’t starve on Israel’s watch. Israelis also know that beyond those largely technical issues, a dialogue with Hamas could mean an extended cease-fire that saves Israeli lives — and perhaps, some day, once Hamas has engaged with reality, something more.

I have always believed in the political efficacy of talking, even when the parties involved are as different as, say, the West Bank settler leadership and the PLO. Indeed, I am the only Israeli who ever got those two parties together for extended talks, back in 1995.

Over the years, informal talks between policymakers and opinion-makers on both sides of the Israeli-Arab divide — what are known in political science parlance as Track II talks — have helped pave the way for more formal talks and even diplomatic breakthroughs, such as the Oslo Accords. Apropos Oslo, it is helpful to recall that when Israelis talked to and even negotiated with the PLO prior to September 1993, that organization still had not yet formally recognized Israel’s existence or abandoned terrorism.

Informal, Track II talks between Israelis and Hamas would certainly not be advisable at present, when Hamas is confronted with a united American-European-Egyptian-Israeli front demanding that it recognize Israel’s existence, disarm and honor past Israeli-Palestinian agreements as preconditions for working with it.

Not when Hamas is negotiating with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Egyptians regarding these conditions, with Israel wisely taking a back seat. Not when Hamas itself has to find compromise formulas that enable it to coexist with the rest of the world. And not when Israel is in the throes of an election campaign in which political leaders compete in being tough.

But assuming that a formula is worked out for integrating Hamas, the winner of the Palestinian Legislative Council elections, into the Palestinian Authority and its institutions; assuming it is clear that Hamas, as part and parcel of the Palestinian polity, is here to stay — then the pros and cons of talking informally might be looked at more closely.

For Israelis to enter into such talks, they would have to define a realistic objective. Genuine, contractual peace with Islamic fundamentalists for whom the territory of Palestine/Land of Israel is sacred waqf land is not attainable. When I got the settlers and the PLO together back in 1995, I defined the objective as conflict management: how to avoid bloodshed as the Oslo-mandated territorial withdrawals unfolded in the West Bank.

Both parties claimed the same West Bank land; the most cordial formula for coexistence they could reach was “the wolf shall dwell with the wolf.” And the most they ever agreed on was that the settlers would not disrupt the January 1996 Palestinian elections. Yet neither side regrets having talked.

“Know thine enemy” is certainly a pragmatic objective for Israelis talking to Hamas. Over the years it has guided the Israeli security officials, researchers and journalists who have met with Hamas leaders, sometimes in Israeli jails. Now that Hamas is taking power, it would be helpful to have a better understanding of its Islamist views regarding a long term cease-fire, and border and refugee issues.

Are the local Gazan and West Bank Hamas leaders really more moderate and pragmatic than those based in Damascus? Will the fact that 80% of Palestinians want Hamas to negotiate a compromise two-state solution with Israel affect the leadership’s thinking on the issues? What is it we don’t know about Hamas that led us to so badly underestimate its appeal to Palestinians in the recent elections?

Given day-to-day realities and the pace of events in Israel/Palestine, half a year from now the two sides might be a lot more familiar with each other. Sheikh Muhamad Abu Tayr, the newly elected Hamasnik from East Jerusalem with the bright red, hennaed beard, may be the vanguard.

He has already been paid the ultimate compliment by Israel’s media. The most popular daily, Yediot Aharonot, devoted a friendly cover story to him, replete with the headline “gingy” — roughly, “carrot-top,” albeit in reference to a beard. Israel’s leading TV satire depicts him telling his constituents, “I’ll concentrate on producing trance parties.”

Nor would it hurt the Hamas leadership to know Israelis a little better. True, fundamentalists are generally so certain of their “truths” that they evince little interest in what the other side thinks. Hamas leaders, even six months from now, may have little of value to discuss. Certainly they will still be antisemitic bigots. Hence talking to them would be neither about peace nor even friendship.

But in terms of contingency planning, we had best begin to prepare to deal with our new neighbor in all possible ways. This clearly means contemplating the need for eventual military action against terrorist pressure from Hamas and Hezbollah on no fewer than three fronts — Gaza, the West Bank and southern Lebanon — and possibly against their Iranian patron with its nuclear ambitions as well. Yet it also means contemplating the idea, somewhere down the line, of talking.

Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.

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