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Preconditions for a Problematic Partner

In early February 2006, just days after Hamas won the Palestinian elections, the Olmert government successfully negotiated with the Quartet (the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia) a framework for dealing with the Islamist movement. Any Hamas-led Palestinian government would have to fulfill three conditions before Israel and the international community would deal with it and renew transfer of aid and taxes: an end to violence, acceptance of previous agreements negotiated between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, and recognition of Israel (usually stated by Israel as recognition of its “right to exist”).

These conditions are eminently reasonable; they reflect the legality of the Oslo process and all it has achieved. They are supported by many moderate Palestinians, including President Mahmoud Abbas, and by the Egyptians, whose intervention in Gaza on behalf of Israeli interests has been notable.

The Hamas government has refused to accept the conditions package and has maintained a war posture with Israel. As a consequence, the Palestinian socioeconomic situation has deteriorated sharply, and poverty and anarchy increasingly reign, especially in Gaza.

If the three conditions were designed to maintain a degree of international solidarity with Israel in its confrontation with Hamas, they have largely succeeded, though European, Russian and U.N. patience with the deteriorating situation in Gaza is wearing thin. If, on the other hand, the intention was to “starve” the new Hamas government into adopting a more realistic approach to Israel and reopening peace negotiations, they have failed.

Recent Israeli intelligence assessments point to an approaching escalation in Palestinian violence and a possible revolutionary Hamas decision to open a terror front against American targets. The flow of sophisticated weaponry into Gaza, mainly across the Gaza-Egypt border, has increased. Hamas, with backing from Iran and Hezbollah, seeks to emulate the latter’s successful deployment against Israel of advanced anti-tank and surface-to-surface rockets in the recent Lebanon war. Indeed, the joint assessment by Iran, Syria and Hezbollah that they scored points in that war has apparently emboldened their client in Damascus, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, to toughen his line toward Israel.

This prospect of a worsening confrontation with Hamas, against the backdrop of the inconclusive outcome of the Lebanon war and the failure of the three conditions to bend Hamas’s will, requires that we at least briefly reconsider Israel’s options regarding the Palestinian Hamas government. At one end of the scale, Israel will do everything possible to avoid physically reoccupying the Gaza Strip in order to hunt down every card-carrying Hamasnik. Israelis no longer wish to occupy heavily populated enemy territory; they recognize the demographic and political dangers this entails. Still, if Hamas persists in its militancy, Israel may eventually have no choice.

Another possibility, seemingly encouraged by the United States, is strengthening Fatah’s military capacity and encouraging it to take over from Hamas by force. This kind of meddling in internal Palestinian affairs has always ended badly for Israel. So it may first wish to consider an additional option: modifying its preconditions for interacting with the Hamas government in Gaza.

Two of the preconditions have little basis in the logic of recent history. Israel never demanded recognition from Egypt or Jordan as a precondition for negotiating with them; recognition is a logical way to conclude successful peace talks, not to begin them. Nor was PLO recognition, extended in 1993, ever seriously reflected in Yasser Arafat’s political behavior. Besides, even Jordan and Egypt have never officially recognized Israel’s right to exist; it is doubtful that many Arabs do. Why not suffice with Meshaal’s assertion last week to the newspaper Al-Hayat that he recognizes that Israel exists but does not recognize its legitimacy. Israel does not require an existential blessing from Hamas in order to feel legitimate.

Turning to acceptance of past agreements (Oslo, Wye, road map), this is a particularly problematic demand from an Israeli political establishment that for all practical purposes has declared at least some of those agreements a dead letter, and that itself never fully honored them anyway. Indeed, the prevailing view in Israel today is that the chances of an agreed “end of conflict” two-state solution (the objective of Oslo and the road map) in the foreseeable future are nil, and that the direction of movement should be toward conflict management rather than conflict resolution — precisely Hamas’s declared way of seeing things (albeit as it continues to make extreme demands of Israel).

That leaves the third condition, an end to violence. Hamas already has agreed to a cease-fire, though on terms, such as permitting terrorism against Israelis in the territories, that are obviously unacceptable. But if the other two demands are dropped, the end of violence — meaning a stable cease-fire — can remain a legitimate test of Hamas’s readiness to live at peace with Israel, before more extreme measures are invoked.

In terms of local and regional realpolitik and in view of the growing Islamist threat to Israel, softening conditions in order to try and deal with Hamas makes sense. Hamas is a divided movement, with the relative moderates concentrated in Gaza and the extremists in exile. Israel has an interest in cultivating and widening this divide through give and take with the moderates. It desperately needs a modicum of stability in the West Bank and Gaza while it concentrates on the Iranian threat, which diverts Israel’s main strategic focus away from Gaza and toward the east (Iran, a Shiite Iraq) and north (Hezbollah, Syria). Indeed, the last thing Israel needs is a festering Somalia-like situation on its doorstep in Gaza. Enabling aid and tax money to flow to the Palestinian Authority would certainly help avoid this contingency, even under Hamas rule.

To even weigh the option of abandoning two out of its three conditions, the Olmert government would have to own up publicly to what everyone knows: There is no chance right now for a viable peace process with the Palestinians even if Hamas accepts all three. Israel’s primary interest in the near future is managing the Palestinian conflict, not resolving it, and after Fatah’s dramatic failure at conflict-resolution, state-building and governance, Hamas is the only conceivable partner, however problematic, for that endeavor.

Yossi Alpher is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak. He currently co-edits the bitterlemons family of Internet publications.

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