PA President Abbas with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal 311 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ho New)
Is internal Palestinian reconciliation a prerequisite to Israeli-Palestinian peace? In the past Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has questioned our ability to negotiate with PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas when he has no control over Gaza. (On the other hand, he has also questioned whether Abbas can be negotiated with even if there is a reconciliation between Abbas and Hamas; Hamas is a terrorist organization committed to Israel’s destruction.)
Many Palestinians and other Arabs, however, also sense that peace within the Palestinian house is a prerequisite to negotiating peace with Israel. If the house is divided then neither the PLO nor Hamas represent all Palestinians. Many Palestinians are actually quite disturbed about the division and Abbas and Hamas are under significant public pressure to reunify the Palestinian house and their common struggle for liberation.
The division of the Palestinian house is more than just a struggle for power between opposing political parties. It is not even a struggle over control of financial and land assets. It is most fundamentally a struggle over vision, worldview and political direction.
Abbas has stated clearly that he supports reconciliation but that it must take place on his terms. This refers to his demand that Hamas rescind the use of violence, thereby dropping the armed struggle (which Hamas calls “resistance”), that it adhere to agreements made between the PLO and Israel (meaning most particularly the continuation of security cooperation between Palestinian Authority forces and Israeli security forces) and that Hamas fully recognize Abbas’s right and determination to negotiate peace with Israel.
Hamas, particularly from the vantage point of newly reelected politburo leader Khaled Mashaal, seeks to merge Hamas into the PLO and eventually take over the body which is recognized world-wide as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
Initially, the merging of Hamas into the PLO would require Hamas to at least implicitly recognize Israel and the Oslo peace process and its agreements. All of the signed agreements between Israel and the Palestinians have been between the government of Israel and the PLO representing the Palestinian people. According to Mashaal’s strategy this might be a tactical move in which swallowing the implicit recognition of Israel would be acceptable because after taking over the PLO he could have the movement nullify the agreements and the security arrangements with Israel.
During Mashaal’s historic visit to Gaza after Pillar of Defense in December 2012 he delivered one of the most extreme rhetorical attacks against Israel’s right to exist, and presented Hamas’ vision of a Palestinian Islamic republic from the River to the Sea. Several months before, Mashaal had appeared on CNN and expressed support for a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders.
After Mashaal’s visit, I phoned one of the Hamas leaders in Gaza and asked: Which was the real Khaled Mashaal – Gaza or CNN? He responded that I should understand the context; his first visit to Gaza, the leader coming home to his country, etc. I responded that if Mashaal is a leader and really does support the vision he expressed on CNN then he would begin to lead his people away from the lie that they will defeat Israel and that Palestine will be built on the ruins of the Jewish state. I heard him on CNN and I heard him in Gaza. He was more convincing in Gaza.
I DO not believe that reconciliation between the PLO and Hamas is possible. Or rather, as long as there remains the possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian negotiated peace agreement there is little real possibility for real reconciliation between those two Palestinian movements. That is not necessarily a bad thing, even from a Palestinian perspective. It is good that Palestinians are faced with the need to make a choice – a real choice for their future.
Palestinian public opinion polls and research demonstrate that Hamas has only minority support. The Hamas victory in the 2006 elections was technical (due to the electoral system) – Hamas has never had a majority of support inside of Palestine and not even within Gaza.
While a clear majority of Palestinians support the idea of reconciliation, the conceptual framework that they have is a situation where Hamas is no longer Hamas, in terms of ideology, and where everyone agrees to work together, until new elections can be held. This is simply unrealistic. Until now, Hamas has not been willing to compromise on its ideology, particularly refusing to completely forgo the armed struggle. Hamas is not willing to allow the Ramallah security forces to retake their positions in Gaza and their authority over the Hamas military forces. Newly re-elected Hamas leader Maashal, however, is repeating his call for support for a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders and has once again begin to talk about non-violent resistance. Additionally, one of the most extreme Hamas leaders, Foreign Minister Mahmoud aZahar has been unelected from the leadership. If Hamas is moving towards the PLO position, then reconciliation may be possible, but without these fundmental changes, there is no real possibility for unification.
That being the case, is it possible to negotiate with Abbas only for the West Bank? The answer is no – we negotiate with Abbas for the West Bank and for Gaza. The Palestinian state will include the West Bank and Gaza – but it will only be implemented in Gaza when the regime that rules there accepts the terms of the agreement.
Abbas has made a commitment that he will bring any agreement to a referendum. Hamas has agreed that Abbas has the right to negotiate and that it will honor the results of a referendum (I don’t really believe that, but it is not really relevant). I am quite convinced, as is Abbas, that a large majority of Palestinians will support a fair peace deal with Israel and that such a referendum will pass.
At that point Hamas will have a choice to make. It will have to face the people of Gaza and Palestine and explain that they are either changing their ideology or are stepping down. The Palestinian people in Gaza, who will also support the referendum with a large majority, will demand that they, too, benefit from the fruits of the agreement – freedom, liberation, prosperity and peace, as well as reunification with their Palestinian brothers and sisters in the West Bank.
I asked senior Palestinian leaders in the West Bank their opinion of this assessment and proposal. I have not found anyone who did not agree from within the PLO leadership.
As an Israeli, I contend that the best way to reduce Hamas to its real size, which is about 15 percent of the public, and to remove it completely as a threat to peace is to make peace with the Palestinian leadership which is willing to make peace with us, namely President Abbas and the PLO.
The writer is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit.