Israel and Hamas: Is it time for a new deal?

If conducted in good faith, this deal would create a new dynamic serving to induce both Israel and Hamas to accept the inescapable reality of each others’ existence as peoples and neighbor.

A Hamas parade in Gaza City 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Hamas parade in Gaza City 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The one important lesson that should be drawn from the last few weeks’ interaction and conflict between Israeli and Palestinian forces is that a new deal between Hamas and Israel is timely, possible and necessary to gradually move toward ending the conflict between them. If a deal is not struck, southern Israel could once again become a target for rockets fired by non-Hamas Palestinians in Gaza and Israeli retaliatory attacks could further escalate violence along the lines of the 2008-2009 Gaza war. To be sure, since any incident could trigger an outbreak of renewed violence, it is in the interest of both Israel and Hamas to build on the recent prisoner exchange and seek a new agreement that would ease the Israeli blockade and gradually end it. Similarly, Hamas would officially suspend violence and eventually renounce it as a means by which to achieve the Palestinians’ aspiration for statehood.
The two agreements that Hamas has reached recently through Egyptian mediation – the Palestinian reconciliation agreement with the Fatah movement in May and the prisoner-swap agreement with Israel in October – offer an opportunity to provide the building blocks for improved relations between Israel and Hamas. After the signing of the reconciliation agreement in Cairo, Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal not only confirmed that they will abide by the cease-fire with Israel for at least one more year but, more importantly, reiterated that Hamas is willing to accept a Palestinian state within 1967 borders, something he had said two years ago. The prisoner swap in which Hamas released Israeli captive Gilad Schalit in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli prisons suggests that Hamas and Israel recognize each other’s unmitigated reality and prerogatives. Neither side could retrieve their captives through the use of force nor, as some Hamas members have suggested, would the prisoner swap allow for the exchange of more Palestinian prisoners in the future should Hamas succeed in capturing new Israeli soldiers. This is certainly not a given because the conditions and the circumstances could be dramatically different at any point in time.
These two agreements therefore imply that the positions of the two parties are actually much closer than they appear. For that reason, a new win-win deal between Israel and Hamas would greatly benefit both sides, allowing both to save face, while bringing them closer to recognizing each others’ unmitigated existence. Under the proposed deal, Hamas would commit itself to the suspension of all violent activities against Israel emanating from Gaza. In return, Israel would, in phases, lift the blockade it has imposed on the Gaza Strip since 2006 and open all the Israel-Gaza crossings to allow the free flow of people and commodities in both directions.
At first sight, this deal might appear far-fetched. There are those who can persuasively argue that it is unthinkable for Hamas to renounce the “armed struggle” on which it has built its legitimacy in the Palestinian territories. This argument, however, can be mitigated on several grounds. First, Hamas de facto adheres, even voluntarily, to the cease-fire and works aggressively against other radical groups in Gaza from firing rockets at Israel. Second, the prisoner exchange has shown that Hamas can extract concessions from Israel only through negotiations and not through violence while recognizing the futility of continued armed struggle against Israel. (This now also runs against Egypt’s national interests given the country’s increased involvement with Hamas and its desire to maintain the peace with Israel.) Third, Hamas’s challenge is made more difficult as a result of the uprising in Syria, which threatens the collapse of its base in that country, compelling Hamas to work much closer with the Egyptian authorities than ever before. More importantly, the proposed deal requires neither direct negotiations between Israel and Hamas nor formal recognition of Israel nor a surrendering of arms, but simply an official suspension of violence to give the non-violent approach a chance.
FOR ISRAEL, some would certainly argue that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government would be disinterested in such a deal because it has, by and large, already secured a cease-fire. And in case Hamas re-engages violently or allows others to engage in a campaign of terror against it, the Israeli Defense Forces have the capability to retaliate and inflict painful destruction, including decapitating its leadership.
But this argument is myopic for a number of reasons. First, the blockade is degrading Israel’s international moral standing, increasing its isolation and reinforcing the image of Israel as an indifferent and reclusive state. Recent private comments caught on open mics by France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy that Netanyahu is a liar and Obama’s repartee that he himself has to deal with Netanyahu every day is a telling example. Additionally, European diplomats are baffled by Netanyahu’s confrontational policies, especially in reaction to the Palestinians’ bid for UN recognition precisely when the Palestinians are pursuing moderation.
Second, removing the blockade would be gradual. Hamas’s commitment would be tested and monitored by Egyptians, who have a vested interest in keeping the peace. It should be noted that removing the blockade has not been ruled out even by the staunchest right-wing elements in Israel. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in 2010 suggested disengaging entirely from Gaza, including lifting the blockade and leaving Hamas to its own devices as long as it does not commit acts of violence against Israel.
Third, the new revelations made by the International Atomic and Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran is clearly advancing toward the acquisition of nuclear weapons represents an existential threat from the Israeli perspective and should also provide the Netanyahu government with the incentive to reach an understanding with the Palestinians. However small or large the potential of conflagration between Israel and Iran may be, it would be in Israel’s best interest to focus on Iran and prevent the emergence of a new front in Gaza that could sap much of Israel’s military resources when it needs them most.
Finally, the gradual removal of the blockade would also provide a good start toward mending relations with Turkey, especially at a time when Turkey is playing an increasingly important role in dealing with the uprising in Syria, which has serious direct and indirect national security effects on Israel.
The third party that would enormously benefit from the agreement, and whose contribution to it is indispensable, is of course Egypt. The ruling military in Egypt would be interested in reaching an agreement between Israel and Hamas out of the concern that a renewed violent conflict would only complicate the domestic situation in Egypt and severely undermine its relations with both Israel and the United States. Egypt could not simply come to Hamas’s aid in case of a new Israeli incursion without risking these relations, nor could it ignore the death of hundreds of Palestinians without public outcry. While Egypt is perfectly capable of taking the initiative and holding indirect negotiations (a la the Gilad Schalit deal), its terms of engagement should be clear: Hamas should not provoke Israel into a new incursion and Israel should refrain from tit-for-tat retaliations to allow for further negotiations and progress.
Inherent in the proposed deal is the inclusion of phases that would engender trust in the mechanism and help Israel and Hamas maintain an ongoing dialogue, albeit indirectly, to develop the confidence needed to move to the next phase of any agreement they reach. As Hamas suspends violence and the mutual cease-fire is reinforced, Israel would reciprocate by gradually easing the blockade, provided that the Egyptians would take verifiable and transparent measures to prevent weapons from being smuggled into Gaza. There should be no doubt that the US and the Quartet have a role to play in this agreement by signaling to Hamas that taking such a step would pave the way for providing financing for the reconstruction of Gaza to help the Palestinian population.In turn, this would discourage Hamas from accepting funds from Iran that have traditionally been used by Tehran as a tool to foil any rapprochement between Israel and the Palestinians, particularly Hamas.
If conducted in good faith through the genuine interests of both parties, this deal would create a new dynamic serving to induce both Israel and Hamas to accept the inescapable reality of each others’ existence as peoples and neighbors. This would be particularly timely; especially since the PA and Hamas have nearly come to a full agreement leading toward national elections sometime in the first half of 2012, in which Hamas will still represent a strong Palestinian constituency, regardless of Israel’s wishes.
The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.