Israel and the international community should hold negotiations with Hamas and continue to fund the Palestinian Authority rather than boycotting it, former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said Sunday.
"I think financial aid must be given to Hamas," Ben-Ami told a packed audience at the American Colony Hotel in east Jerusalem. "Giving to NGO's will not solve the problem. You cannot call for democracy in the Arab world and then punish the people who are elected," he said, speaking at the launching of his new book, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.
Ben-Ami expressed strong criticism of Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's convergence plan for unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank, saying it would not be accepted abroad or bring security to Israel.
"The convergence plan is based on fallacies," said Ben-Ami. "[Olmert] assumes that if he fails to reach a settlement with the PA - and the PA for him is Abu Mazen [PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas] - the international community will accept his unilaterally defined borders as final borders. They will not," he said.
Ben-Ami drew a parallel between withdrawal from the West Bank and Israel's withdrawal from the security zone in southern Lebanon. "All the years we held a security zone, we did not achieve the level of quiet that we have had since we returned to internationally accepted borders," he said. "Withdrawing to unilateral borders that include settlement blocs is not going to give us security."
After a career teaching modern history at Tel Aviv University, Ben-Ami was appointed Israel's ambassador to Spain in 1987. In 1996 he entered politics, becoming minister of internal security in 1999 and minister of foreign affairs in 2000.
Ben-Ami said Israel's policy of unilateralism was not new. "The Israeli tradition of playing chess with ourselves has existed for many years," he said. "It's painful to depart from that tradition."
Israel could keep Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank if this was negotiated with the Palestinians, he said. "The Clinton plan gave the Palestinians compensation and a land swap," said Ben-Ami. "But the Bush letter to [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon is like the Balfour Declaration. It only tells Jews what they will get and ignores the other side." Ben-Ami said that borders set unilaterally would be illegitimate. President George Bush's letter of April 14, 2004 expressed understanding for Israel's need to retain some West Bank settlements.
Ben-Ami said the idea of spreading democracy in the Arab world was "based on a major conceptual mistake of the Neocons. They thought that if you give the Arabs a choice to vote, they will chose what you want. But if you give the vote today to Egyptians they will bring in an Islamist government which is not friendly to either the US or Israel."
Hamas, he said, was different. "Hamas is not al-Qaida. It is an organization that has used terror in the service of well-defined national goals... You can argue the means are inadmissible, but the rationale is essentially nationalistic," he said.
Instead of isolating Hamas, it should be pressured to accepting an Arab-drafted peace offer, said Ben-Ami. "If, for example, Israel would reach an end-game plan with the Palestinians based on the Saudi Initiative - which is part of the road map - then Hamas would be isolated by the Arab world if they don't follow through with it." According to Ben-Ami, diplomatic and financial isolation of Hamas will only cause it to "return to social work and terror."
Ben-Ami said Hamas should be required to meet two conditions for the renewal of diplomatic negotiations and to have relations with Israel and the international community: acceptance of a two-state solution and halting terror.
Nicholas Pelham, a senior Jerusalem-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, agreed with Ben-Ami's assessment.
"Cutting aid to the Palestinian Authority is certain to lead to more violence, not less," said Pelham. "Israel and the international community should find a formula for interacting with the Palestinian Authority."
Ben-Ami suggested that negotiations with the Hamas-led PA could begin without it extending formal recognition to the Jewish state.
"I think if Hamas offered a long-term cease-fire long ago, in contradiction to their basic ideology, then negotiations will likely lead them further," Ben-Ami said. But, he said, "they cannot be expected to change their long-standing policy... about accepting Israel without signs of a quid pro quo."
Pelham said that the ideological differences between the two sides were a matter of semantics. "Israel and the international community need to focus on deeds rather than words," he said. "Under Fatah, there was a commitment to nonviolence but a reality of violence. The test for Hamas is whether or not it can deliver a cessation of violence, not promises which can be kept one day and broken the next."
Pelham said Hamas has generally adhered to the cease-fire it declared in March 2005, in contrast to other Palestinian factions, including Fatah.