The elephant in the negotiating room

While refusing to negotiate with Hamas may be excusable, refusing to address Hamas’ role in a future Palestinian state certainly isn’t.

Hamas leaders Khaled Meshaal and Moussa Abu Marzouk 311 (R) (photo credit: Khaled Al Hariri / Reuters)
Hamas leaders Khaled Meshaal and Moussa Abu Marzouk 311 (R)
(photo credit: Khaled Al Hariri / Reuters)
The United Nations and World Bank recently issued reports commending the Palestinians for their impressive efforts in establishing social, economic and political institutions necessary for the conception of a future Palestinian state. Impressive indeed. In merely four years since he came to office, Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad has accomplished political and economic feats that other Palestinian leaders failed to obtain throughout their entire careers, and his state-building initiative is bearing substantial political fruit. Fayyad has successfully positioned the Palestinian Authority for a transition into statehood, adding credence to the idea that UN recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state could be realized as early as September of this year.
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Although peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been indefinitely stalled for some time, ostensibly because of settlement expansion, one realization has become undeniably clear: whether through unilateral declaration or negotiations, a Palestinian state is emerging on the horizon. Israelis as well as the international community need to urgently consider the political and security implications of such a reality, most notably the inevitable role of Hamas in the implementation of any future agreement with Israel.
Before negotiations between Israel and the PA broke down last month, Israeli and PA officials worked vigorously, as they have countless times in the past, to resolve the most pressing issues, including the settlements, partition of Jerusalem and the right of return, among others.
However, when Al-Jazeera leaked the intimate details of the peace negotiations to the public, Hamas severely reprimanded the PA for making what they viewed as unacceptable concessions on issues of critical, even sacred, importance to the Palestinian cause. Such serious reprimand illustrates the considerable gap between the very different interests of Fatah and Hamas.
Furthermore, Hamas has a history of issuing wildly contradicting positions in relation to the peace process with Israel, ranging from outright rejection to implicit recognition of Israel and a professed desire to implement a “long-term truce” with the Jewish State. Although the term “peace” is noticeably absent here, most Israelis would certainly prefer a long-term truce to an incessant hail of rocket and mortar fire that destroys the opportunity to live a normal life. However, if Hamas’ positions are being completely ignored, how can Israel ever expect the organization to honor any future agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority?
In the US, when the Democrats forced their overhaul of the healthcare system through Congress with virtually no Republican support, they lauded the initiative as historical and groundbreaking. That same initiative has been subjected to overwhelming criticism and hostility by a Congress now dominated by Republicans, who are working diligently to have the legislation altered dramatically, if not completely overturned.
How then, does one suppose Hamas will react after having an agreement - which many Hamas leaders vehemently oppose, forced upon them by their rivals with whom they have been warring against for the previous four years? Perhaps the world will laud the agreement as historical and groundbreaking, but we will find those words ring hollow as terror attacks against Israel civilians persist after the Palestinian state’s establishment.
The notion of “don’t ask, don’t tell” carries a very different connotation in Israel than it does in the US. In Israel, it signifies our leaders’ scandalous shortsightedness, even gross neglect, in addressing issues and challenges of immense importance even when those issues are right in front of their faces. This is certainly true in the context of our firefighting resources before the devastating Carmel blaze, or the decrepit state of the IDF before the 2nd Lebanon War, or the impotence of the Dimona Nuclear Reactor against an earthquake similar to that which paralyzed Japan’s Fukushima reactor - an earthquake that most Israeli seismologists insist will happen.
The same understanding can be applied to our leaders’ inability to address the critical Hamas component that, if it so desires, can easily destroy any chance of implementing a successful peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians.
A few months ago, former deputy prime minister and current minister of Industry, Trade and Labor, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, addressed a group of international students at Tel Aviv University. Throughout his presentation, in which he discussed many topics including the peace process, not one word was mentioned about Hamas.
When I asked MK Ben-Eliezer why negotiations are being held that neglect the Hamas aspect of the equation, I received a vague and generic response about how Hamas supports terror and Israel will always retain the right to protect her citizens. Unfortunately, evading the actual question is commonplace among Israeli politicians.
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who was intimately involved in the peace negotiations over the past several years, spoke on Sunday evening at the Heseg Center for Chayalim Bodedim (Lone Soldiers) on a variety of issues, including how close Israel and the PA were to reaching an agreement. She too maintains the position that Israel does not and will not negotiate with Hamas.
Huh? I hope I am not the only individual that sees the massive discrepancy here. Are we attempting to establish peace with the Palestinian people, or just half of them?
It is well known that cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian security apparatuses plays a major role in suppressing Hamas activity throughout the West Bank. On the other hand, no sane individual can possibly think that Israeli troops will remain in the Palestinian territories after a sovereign state has been established there. Virtually every Palestinian leader, including Mahmoud Abbas, Fayyad, Erekat and many others, have asserted this position as non-negotiable.
However, ask any security analyst about the state of affairs in the West Bank and you’ll find there isn’t one that would disagree with the assertion that Hamas poses a major political and security threat to the PA in the West Bank - especially if the IDF presence there disappears.
Regardless of negotiations, the UN General Assembly may decide to recognize a Palestinian state in the near future. If this is the case, we can assume with a fair degree of confidence that their declaration will officially mandate the IDF’s withdrawal, whether immediate or gradual, from the territories.Here’s the rub: The West Bank is not immune to what happened in Gaza four years ago, and the PA realizes this. Israel’s own leaders also need to be prepared for such a scenario.
Israel currently rejects any form of direct communication or negotiation with Hamas, and so long as the group denies Israel’s right to exist and continues to fire rockets and mortars at Israeli civilians indiscriminately, I cannot advocate any policy changes. I am also not so naive as to believe that Hamas would abide by any potential agreements with its sworn moral enemy, let alone have the power to enforce them. But surely it is more naïve to believe that we can implement a comprehensive peace agreement without the tacit agreement or acceptance of Hamas? Ultimately then, our leaders are doing Israel a huge disservice by refusing to point out the enormous elephant occupying the room.
The writer is studying for an MA in Conflict Resolution and Mediation at Tel Aviv University. A former IDF combat soldier, he is a contributor to the IDF activist website