Above the Fray: Hamas’s centrality to a two-state solution

The renewed peace talks offer a new chance to press Hamas to forsake violence and become part of the political process, with the help of Arab states.

3311_Khaled Mashaal face shot (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
3311_Khaled Mashaal face shot
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
The negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority can potentially succeed, but such a success cannot be sustained unless Hamas is brought into the political process in some capacity. Concessions made or breakthroughs achieved must represent the majority of the electorates, as there can be no lasting peaceful solution without recreating a unified polity in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Arab states therefore should heed President Barack Obama’s call to meaningfully contribute to the peace process by pressing Hamas to renounce violence and accept the principles of the Arab Peace Initiative as a common frame of reference for advancing Palestinian unity and a comprehensive resolution of the conflict.
Israel must accept that Hamas is a reality, which it cannot simply wish away. Hamas’s participation is essential, not only because it is in control of Gaza, but also because it represents a disciplined grassroots movement with a substantial social, political and security apparatus. To be sure, Hamas is a radical militant organization, yet it wields too much influence over its followers – and over the Gaza Strip – to be discounted.
While Israel will continue to defend its citizens, Hamas – as an ideology – cannot be removed completely by military force, and ignoring it has not been a successful strategy to marginalize it.
THUS FAR, Hamas’s political participation has been conditional upon its acceptance of the Quartet’s three conditions: Recognize Israel, renounce terrorism and accept prior Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Hamas’s leadership has refused to do so and is unlikely to comply any time soon, perhaps with the exception of adhering to a nonviolent atmosphere.
The renewed peace talks offer a new chance to press Hamas to forsake violence and become part of the political process. Notwithstanding its recent attacks on Israelis in the West Bank coinciding with the launch of direct talks, the group has largely refrained from such violence – and rocket fire from the Gaza Strip – since the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009. That is because Hamas recognizes that escalating violent terror acts would be self-destructive. Israel would not hesitate to respond militarily to an escalation of violence by decapitating Hamas’s leadership. In this sense, Hamas is already tacitly acknowledging that violence is ineffective and will only lead to more destruction.
Meanwhile, the social, security and economic progress achieved in the West Bank offers a glaring contrast to the continuing despondency in Gaza, presenting a serious challenge to Hamas. It is therefore in dire need of a new strategy to deliver goods and services to its constituents. Just as Israel can no longer ignore the reality of Hamas, Hamas must accept the reality and the security of Israel as a prerequisite to its own political survival.
At this stage, the Quartet’s conditions should be replaced by an insistence that Hamas explicitly renounce violence and accept the Arab Peace Initiative. Two of the three Quartet conditions are unrealistic.
Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel in advance of any agreement is consistent with the position of the Arab states (besides Egypt and Jordan). Israel does not and should not need Hamas’s recognition, nor should it be required to recognize Hamas or its ideologies.
Furthermore, Hamas will not explicitly accept past agreements, as doing so would also amount to recognition of Israel. However, by participating in past elections, it has already recognized the governance structure of the Palestinian Authority – a body created following an agreement with Israel – as legitimate. Hamas should be viewed as a political party: if its leadership wants to be a part of the political process it can do so as long as it does not advocate violence.
In this regard, neither the Quartet nor Israel should elevate Hamas’s status by treating it as an independent state. However, the third Quartet condition, forsaking of violence, should be an absolute requirement for it to enter any political process. Doing so could pave the way for both Palestinian unity and Hamas’s participation, albeit indirectly, in negotiations.
MEANWHILE, THE Arab states – particularly Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria – should now pressure Hamas to accept the initiative as a face-saving way of entering the political process that could be acceptable to Israel, the Arab states and the Quartet. These three states have particular interest in the talks and must now support efforts that could bring about a Palestinian state.
Egypt shares a border with the Gaza Strip and has experience addressing Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, mediating the dispute between Fatah and Hamas and working with Israel. It has a vested interest in Hamas’s moderation and calm along its border. Saudi Arabia – as the initiator of the Arab Peace Initiative – now must show that it is capable of the leadership necessary to advance it. As the custodian of the Islamic holy sites, Saudi Arabia can be uniquely influential in addressing Hamas’s Islamic ideology.
Moreover, it has the power of the purse and it can offer substantial financial aid as a further inducement for Hamas to sign on to the peace initiative.
Finally, by advocating Hamas’s acceptance of the initiative, Syria – as host to Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and supporter of Hamas, as well as a signatory to the Arab initiative – could demonstrate that it is determined to improve its relations with the US. In this regard, the statement following the recent meeting between King Abdullah of Jordan and Syrian President Bashar Assad in support of the Arab Peace Initiative is a welcome sign.
The Arab Peace Initiative is not an all-or-nothing deal. The general framework of the document offers a common frame of reference to which all parties to the conflict could relate as a basis for negotiations toward a secure and durable peace. Critics may argue that just as Hamas has not accepted the Quartet’s conditions, it would similarly reject the Arab Peace Initiative. It should be noted that on more than one occasion, Hamas leaders have suggested that they could accept a formula of a cessation of hostilities for a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders.
For example, Mashaal told The New York Times in May 2009 that “we are with a state on the 1967 borders, based on a long-term truce. This includes east Jerusalem, the dismantling of settlements and the right of return of the Palestinian refugees.”
Although such statements contain problematic elements – especially the right of return of refugees – the comments do suggest that Hamas recognizes the benefits of principles of the initiative.
Others may question whether the Arab states would have any meaningful influence on Hamas, since its principal supporter – Iran – is dedicated to obstructing the political process. However, the relationship between Sunni Hamas and Shi’ite Iran is one of convenience and necessity, not ideology. Hamas’s joining the Arab states’ endorsement of the Arab Peace Initiative would serve to bring it into a more suitable alliance with its Sunni brethren.
The Arab Peace Initiative is the only peace plan that offers a common denominator, with elements acceptable to all parties to the conflict. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria should take the lead in advocating it as a way forward for Hamas to become part of the political process, and in doing so advance the prospects of the recently launched peace talks.
The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.