Recalling my first meetings with Hamas – opinion

Both sides know that they essentially cannot avoid each other’s presence. They therefore constantly search for third parties to deliver messages right next door.

HAMAS ACTIVISTS shouting in Gaza. Time for a meeting. (photo credit: REUTERS)
HAMAS ACTIVISTS shouting in Gaza. Time for a meeting.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Reports in the Arab media disclose that Mossad head Yossi Cohen – during a secret visit last week to Qatar to lobby on behalf of Hamas for additional funds for the impoverished Gaza Strip – also tried to meet with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. If this is true, it is in fact very good news. Even though the meeting reportedly did not take place, the change in willingness, perhaps even eagerness, of Israel to finally speak directly with the enemy is a step in the right direction.
As someone who has been involved with direct talks with Hamas, even sending official messages at times, it has always bewildered me how senior politicians, leaders and security personnel play childish games when life and death issues are at stake. The mutual unwillingness of both sides to engage directly is madness. Both sides know that they essentially cannot avoid each other’s presence. They therefore constantly search for third parties to deliver messages right next door.
I recall once sitting in the Knesset office of an Israeli government minister while I was speaking to a senior Hamas official on my cellphone. The minister was listening attentively as I put the phone on speaker. In the middle of the conversation I held out my phone and suggested to the minister that he should speak directly. He literally turned white and almost jumped out of his skin. What would have happened if he took the phone and actually spoke to the enemy directly?
During the five years and four months that I was engaged in the secret back-channel with Hamas that I created for the release of Gilad Schalit, I proposed to officials on both sides direct contact between the officials in charge of the file in Israel and in Gaza. So much time had been wasted by employing third party channels and mediators from foreign countries.
In every case that I know of, the third parties had their own interests and demands, which did not always coincide with Israel’s interest. The employment of third parties as mediators can never replace direct contact. That the Cohen-Haniyeh meeting apparently did not take place may have a lot to do with the engagement of the Qataris in between, who as far as I understand, have little interest in enabling direct Israeli-Hamas contact.
I REMEMBER my first direct contact with a Hamas member. It was early 2006, and I was at a Mediterranean development conference in Cairo. A mutual friend from Gaza introduced us. He was and remains a professor of economics at the Islamic University in Gaza. He had never met an Israeli before and I had never spoken directly with someone from Hamas. We spent about six hours together over the next few days in a kind of explorative dialogue.
Our mutual misconceptions were remarkable. The lack of knowledge and understanding between us was amazing given that we are neighbors and live in the same land. It very much reminded me of my first contacts with PLO leaders back in the mid-1970s. The gaps were and remain huge and can only be bridged by direct contact.
When I first tried to create a secret back-channel dialogue between senior Israelis and Hamas representatives, it was amazing to me that every single former senior security official in Israel with whom I spoke was more than willing to participate. The opposition came, of course, from officials still in positions of power. They had politicians to answer to who were locked into their own positions of opposing any direct contact with the enemy.
There wasn’t a single important politician who was willing to have direct personal contact. That is what is so encouraging, in my view, regarding the story that the head of the Mossad tried to meet with the head of Hamas. If this signals a change in policy, there may be room to hope for change in the horrific dynamic that has existed between Israel and Gaza for much too long.
For years, Israel and Hamas have engaged in policies that repeat themselves and solve nothing, only leading to repeated rounds of violence. There have not been any real policy alternatives on the table that seek to find a way to end the suffering. The continued calls for using more force and for creating deterrence will only deepen the suffering and lead to more of the same. There must be a radical change in thinking. Political leaders need to be courageous enough to break taboos that leave us stuck in the same place with no hope of improvement.
After 14 years of direct contact and hundreds of phone calls, thousands of WhatsApp and SMS messages, and even face-to-face meetings in Egypt, a colleague from Hamas and I remain committed to finding a path toward understanding. During the short time that David Meidan from the Mossad was in charge of the Schalit file, my colleague and I broke the deadlock that enabled an agreement. Both of us are still available to be engaged formally once again. The people in charge know how to reach us.

The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book,
In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press.