Analysis: Principles meet practicality

J'lem policymakers believe that rejecting Hamas is the international norm.

palsanti-hamasrally29888 (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
More than three months after the Palestinian elections, as members of the Quartet - the US, EU, UN and Russia - gather in New York on Tuesday to discuss how to grapple with the Hamas-dominated PA, Israel feels rather pleased with itself. Yes, there have been cracks in the international front against Hamas, ranging from visits by the leadership abroad to the funneling of some aid without Israeli or American approval. But policymakers in Jerusalem believe these are minor deviations from a successfully established norm embracing Israel's position on the Hamas-run PA: it is a terrorist entity, illegitimate, not to be negotiated with or supported. More crucial than the odd Swedish visa or small Russian cash infusion, the thinking goes, is the sense that no significant international player is condoning substantive talks with an unmoderated Hamas. The Israeli message has been that Hamas must change or fail. And in advance of Tuesday's Quartet session, the belief in Jerusalem is that the international community is united behind the preconditions for a dialogue with the Hamas-run PA: recognition of Israel's right to exist, acceptance of previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and the renunciation of terrorism. Britain's Jack Straw may have deviated from that text a little of late - requiring Hamas, for instance, to recognize the mere fact of Israel's existence rather than its right to sovereignty. But then Straw, as of embattled Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet reshuffle this week, is no longer the British foreign secretary. Israel also seems to have formulated a firm response should Hamas try to find a quasi-pragmatic position to appease the international community, perhaps by declaring a degree of acceptance for the Arab League's Beirut peace proposal. This plan, adopted at the Arab Summit in Beirut in March 2002, calls on Arab states to "normalize relations" with Israel in return for the establishment of a Palestinian state following an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and a just solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees in accordance with UN Resolution 194. This resolution called on Israel to allow the return of Palestinian refugees and compensate those who don't want to do so. Hamas acceptance of the Beirut program, Israel would retort, simply isn't good enough. Hamas cannot pick and choose initiatives it likes more and those it likes less and expect to be rehabilitated. Moreover, it is the agreements that have been negotiated directly between the parties, such as the Oslo Accords and the road map, that alone have legitimacy. Only by accepting all the negotiated accords signed by Israel and previous Palestinian leaderships would Hamas meet the demands of that second precondition. Again, the sense in Israel is that the international community generally shares this approach. Where things get trickier is on the practical implications of the "change or fail" attitude. Even if Hamas chooses not to change, as has been the case to date, the international community doesn't want to see a humanitarian crisis, while Israel understands that its own interests could be hurt along with those of the Palestinians. Notwithstanding its past disengagement from the Gaza Strip and planned "convergence" from much West Bank territory, Israel knows it will be held primarily responsible should television networks start broadcasting footage of starving Palestinians. Theoretically, everyone is still on the same page - anxious to enable a flow of aid to prevent crisis in the Palestinian areas without, in the process, boosting Hamas's ability to govern. The question is how exactly to achieve this, and Israel doesn't seem to have any solid answers. It's all very well and good to say, for instance, that a flow of funds for medicines and other health needs is acceptable. But such aid is meaningless unless you also provide money to pay the doctors and nurses. And the minute you start paying those salaries, you are facilitating Hamas's continued governance. This dilemma will be prominent on the agenda at the Quartet talks. Israel would like to argue that it is a technical issue, subordinate to the main principles for which it has succeeded in winning such widespread support. But amid fresh World Bank warnings of fast-approaching Palestinian humanitarian disaster, the international community could be so concerned as to loosen some of its restrictions on funding. And then the rhetorical higher principles purportedly governing relations with the Hamas-led PA will not matter a whit.