- Published on Wednesday, 08 June 2011 00:54
- Category: The Connection
After more than a week of not-so-subtle tension between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the U.S.-Israel relationship appears to be at an all time low. Still, there is one issue about which both leaders adamantly agree: there can be no negotiations with Hamas.
Both the U.S. and Israel have designated Hamas a terrorist organization and both have a long-standing official policy against negotiating with its leaders (though in practice, Israel regularly consults with Hamas when it comes to security, aid, and water allocations for Gaza).
Yet after two decades of failed negotiations toward a Two-State Solution, perhaps it is time for the U.S. and Israel to re-consider their out-of-date policy toward Hamas.
Over the past two decades, Hamas, an Islamist political group, has repeatedly launched attacks against Israeli military and civilian personnel. Since taking over Gaza after parliamentary elections in 2006, skirmishes between Hamas and Israel have escalated to full-scale war on a couple of occasions, most memorably during the infamous Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, when Israel attempted cripple Hamas through an extended bombing campaign in Gaza. It did not work.
Since Israel now recognizes that Hamas cannot be defeated militarily, it has escalated its rhetoric against the organization. In his address to the U.S. Congress on May 24th, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Hamas is the equivalent of al-Qaeda, a sentiment that produced a rousing standing ovation in Congress (one of nearly thirty such ovations). But is the comparison between Hamas and al-Qaeda based in reality?
Over the last few years, Gaza has seen an influx of al-Qaeda-inspired Salafist groups that have been orchestrating attacks against Israel, including the launch of Qassam rockets at Israeli cities. Yet these groups have also been attacking Hamas members inside Gaza. Indeed, Hamas has made ridding the Gaza Strip of the al-Qaeda-inspired groups a primary goal, going so far as to attack a mosque inside which the leader of one such splinter group was seeking shelter; twenty-eight Salafists were killed in the raid.
The al-Qaeda-inspired Salafists view Hamas with equal animosity. Jared Malsin, former editor-in-chief of Ma’an, wrote in a recent article that the Salafist groups are at odds with Hamas, first for their refusal to implement a strict application of Islamic law in Gaza, and second, for their acceptance of a ceasefire with Israel, which the Salafists oppose on principle.
It would seem, therefore, that Israel and Hamas have a common enemy in Gaza. And yet, according to the International Crisis Group, the current Israeli strategy of isolating Hamas is not helping either rid Gaza of the al-Qaeda-inspired groups. The ICG recently released a report titled “Radical Islam in Gaza,” which states, “The policy of isolating Gaza and ignoring Hamas exacerbates [radicalism].” The report added, “Besides condemning Gazans to a life of scarcity, it has not weakened the Islamist movement, loosened its grip over Gaza, bolstered Fatah or advanced the peace process.”
In order to contain this radical Salafist threat, Israel must work with the leadership in Gaza. But given the current climate, opening diplomatic relations with Hamas seems like a far-fetched idea. Historical precedent, however, makes such an event seem less out of the question.
In the 1970s, the Palestinian Liberation Organization unleashed deadly terrorist attacks in both Israel and abroad. The most famous of these attacks took place in Munich, when the PLO killed several Israeli Olympic athletes during the games. For decades after the murders, the PLO was an international pariah. Yet at the Oslo peace talks in 1993, the PLO, through the Letters of Mutual Recognition, recognized Israel. A year later, the head of the PLO, Yasser Arafat, won the Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. By utilizing open dialogue, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders created an opportunity for a peaceful transition to two states for two peoples, with secure borders.
Of course, the Oslo agreements did not proceed without conflict. Leaders on the Israeli right hammered Rabin for signing the Oslo Accords and for speaking with the PLO. Tragically, Rabin was shot and killed in 1995. His murderer was an Israeli extremist who was inspired by the words of Israeli right-wing politicians, including Benjamin Netanyahu, who famously supported a rally in Jerusalem in which Israelis shouted “Rabin is a traitor!” and “Death to Rabin!”
Nevertheless, Israeli President Shimon Peres, who played a major role in the Oslo Accords, sees a parallel between the events of the 1990s and the potential for Hamas to participate in negotiations. In early May, Peres said, “Even when I began negotiation with Arafat, they said, 'there's no chance. I think the same thing about Hamas. The name does not interest me, what matters is the content. Anything can happen, because Hamas has problems too, and it's not so strong.”
Today, Israel faces a Hamas that has expressed interest in participating in a peace agreement. In fact, according to Palestinian businessman Munib-Al Masri, who helped broker the recent Hamas-Fatah reunification deal, Hamas officials have told him they would agree to a peace accord with Israel that would include a de facto recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Masri told the Israeli newspaper Ynet: “They said that they want to establish a strong government that can achieve a comprehensive peace based on 1967 border.” In May 2006, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “We have no problem with a sovereign Palestinian state over all of our lands within the 1967 borders, living in calm.” Even the former leader of Israel’s Shin Bet (the Prime Minister’s security agency), Ava Ayalon, said of Hamas in 2008: “They are ready and willing to see the establishment of a Palestinian state in the temporary borders of 1967…will have to adopt a path that could lead them far from their original ideological goals.”
With the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at what seems to be an infinite standstill, innovative approaches for peace are essential. Without a shift, futile debates over the characterization of “indefensible borders” will continue to dominate the paradigm. As the status quo continues, frustration can quickly translate to violence or upheaval on the ground.
It’s unlikely that this precarious situation is in the best interest of the Israeli people. What Israel needs right now is not a Prime Minister that travels to the U.S. Congress to give grandstanding speeches. Instead, Israelis needs someone more like former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was willing to risk his political success- and ultimately his life- through open dialogue with the other side. With Hamas and Fatah now reunited, Prime Minister Netanyahu has a chance to do just that. In fact, Hamas has indicated that it is willing to leave the peace negotiations up to Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas but will honor any peace deal reached by its Palestinian partner.
Will the Prime Minister listen?
This is Kianpars last column as an Aslan Media contributor.By Kianpars, Aslan Media Columnist Photo Credit: Mustafa2