Q&A affecting the future of the Middle East

Encountering Peace: I say to both leaders, there are no better leaders than the two of you – Netanyahu and Abbas – to make real peace.

Mashaal with Abbas 311 R (photo credit: Reuters)
Mashaal with Abbas 311 R
(photo credit: Reuters)
Over the past two weeks I have been on a speaking tour in the United States (one more week to go). I am appearing on college campuses, some, such as Johns Hopkins, American University and George Washington in the main cities of the country.
I have also been in campuses in small towns in the Midwest like Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, and Manchester College in the middle of Indiana. I have spoken in synagogues and Jewish community centers, and even in a church that serves as a place of worship for Jews in their own sanctuary, as well as the Presbyterian Church chapel for the Christian community there in Bethesda, Maryland. I have met diverse groups of people of various political points of view on the subject of Israel and Palestine.
Mostly I have either spoken about the secret, direct, back-channel negotiations I initiated with Hamas for the release of Gilad Schalit or on the very political subject: Is Israeli-Palestinian peace still possible? In every speaking engagement there is a significant amount of time for Q&A and the questions asked are almost always the same, regardless of where or which lecture I am giving.
Here is a sample of those questions, and my answers to them.
Q: If Israel and Hamas negotiated a deal for the release of Schalit, can we negotiate peace with them? A: It is important to realize that there are significant changes happening now within the Hamas movement. My experience with them has taught me that most of what I knew about Hamas in the past was simply wrong. Hamas is first and foremost a Palestinian national political movement. It has a very strong religious Islamic flavor to it, but it more of a political movement than a religious one. That is what explains why there are changes occurring now within the movement.
Most Hamas people I know do not know the Hamas charter and have never even read it. No, Hamas is not prepared to make peace with Israel or to recognize it. In fact, it is not even clear at this moment how the Hamas movement will make decisions, there is such internal division inside the movement between its various prominent leaders.
Some of those leaders, like Khaled Mashaal, have stated that their political goal is a Palestinian state in the lands occupied by Israel in 1967, and not all of the lands west of the Jordan river. Mashaal has also made a commitment to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that Hamas is prepared to adopt the non-violent popular resistance against the occupation, instead of the armed struggle. Mashaal has also demanded that Hamas become part of the PLO.
All five of the agreements signed between the government of Israel and the Palestinian people were done with the PLO representing the Palestinian people, and Abbas has stated categorically that in joining the PLO Hamas would have to adhere to the agreements that the PLO signed with Israel. In other words, Mashaal at least has now implicitly agreed to the Quartet demands for sitting at the table – those demands were recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and terrorism and adhering to signed agreement.
Hamas does need to do that explicitly in order to be invited to the table, but this is most definitely a step in the right direction.
There are some people in Hamas who are observing the United States and European governments beginning to engage the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Some Hamas people are now even proposing to disband the Hamas movement and to replace it with a Palestinian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Their intention is not to make their political movement part of a global Islamic scheme for a Middle Easter caliphate, but rather to get the West to engage them in the political process. Recognition and legitimacy are no less important to them than they are to Israel.
Q: So then, perhaps we should negotiate with Hamas, and not with Abbas? A: I believe that it will not be possible to reach an agreement with Hamas whereas it is completely possible to reach an agreement with Abbas. I recently had a private meeting with President Abbas. He made it sparkling clear that he continues to have the authority to negotiate peace with Israel on behalf of the Palestinian people.
He assured me that if he had an agreement in his hands that would guarantee the Palestinian people freedom from occupation and the parameters of an agreement that would include a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem and an agreed solution to the refugee issue that would provide the Palestinian people with dignity, he would have no problem selling it to his people.
He said, leave Hamas to us – they are our problem, but don’t do anything that will empower the extremists.
Offer the Palestinian people a real peace deal and they will vote yes in a referendum in large numbers, and Hamas will either accept it or they will be forced out of power.
I propose making a deal with Abbas that includes the West Bank and Gaza and states that it will be implemented in Gaza when the regime there accepts it. I believe it will not take very long for the people of Gaza to either force Hamas to accept it or to be replaced by others who will. We have seen the power of the street all over the Arab world. Make a real offer of peace to the Palestinians, and they will demonstrate the power of the street in support of it.
Q: If Abbas wants peace, why is he making agreements with Hamas? A: Good question! Abbas, like Netanyahu, does not believe that there is a partner for peace on the other side. He does not believe that Israel is serious about negotiations – if they were, he says, they would stop settlement building long enough for us to reach an agreement on borders.
He believes that he is prepared to make significant concessions to Israel on all issues, but that Israel only presents negative positions of what it not ready to accept. Abbas cannot and will not accept less than Olmert offered and Netanyahu is not willing to pick up the negotiations from where they ended during Olmert’s time.
Abbas told me that he is serious about throwing in the towel. He is coming to the conclusion that there is no chance of reaching a negotiated agreement at this time and if he can’t make peace with Israel and create the Palestinian state, which is his lifetime ultimate dream, than at least he will leave office having made peace within the Palestinian house. It is quite easy to understand his position.
I say to both leaders, there are no better leaders than the two of you – Netanyahu and Abbas – to make real peace. There has never been a better opportunity for peace making and you both know what is entailed. Reaching an agreement is possible and if both of you support it, the majority of your peoples will support it. There is no third party to help you now. It is the responsibility of you two leaders to do it alone – together – face-to-face, in secret or in public (probably in secret is much better), but do it now. Tomorrow may be too late!
The writer is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, a radio host on All for Peace Radio and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilead Schalit.