In the past month there has been enormous controversy surrounding the election of Hamas to lead the parliament in Palestine. Such concern is legitimate in light of their record of violence and their own founding charter, which calls for the destruction of Israel. It is important, however, to analyze the situation without rhetoric and emotion dominating the discourse on what at first appears to be a substantial setback to the peace process.
While Hamas’ election is a setback, it is not the crisis it has been made out to be. Hamas has said it is prepared to negotiate with Israel. While it refuses to recognize the state of Israel, there is a historical point worth noting: at the initiation of the Oslo process in 1993, Israel had not recognized the Palestinians right to a state. Even informal recognition did not come until Ehud Barak was elected prime minister several years later. A formal public statement acknowledging the right of Palestinians to a state was not made until Ariel Sharon became prime minister. In spite of this lack of recognition, the Palestinians pursued negotiations with the Israelis, hoping that a viable state would come in the final agreement. The precedent exists for engaging in negotiations without recognition at the outset.
Further, Hamas had accepted Israel’s de facto right to exist as early as last year after the Gaza disengagement. Following Gaza, Hamas called for the liberation of the West Bank and Jerusalem. Conspicuously absent was a call for all of historic Palestine, which includes Israel proper. To the causal observer this may seem irrelevant, but to the more seasoned analysts this represented a substantial shift in Hamas policy. Following the election many other statements have been made representing this shift.
During Hamas’ campaign it appears that they removed all statements calling for the destruction of Israel from their platform and focused on improving the lives of Palestinians through social services and ending corruption. It was this message – not a message of violence – that resonated with Palestinian voters. Hamas avoided violent statements because they know that most Palestinians want a negotiated settlement. Hamas has also largely respected a unilateral, self-imposed ceasefire since February of last year. This has led to a substantial decrease in the number of attacks against Israelis. The ceasefire shows Hamas’ capacity to demonstrate restraint, despite claims to the contrary.
A former head of Israeli Military Intelligence, General Shlomo Gazit, speaking last Wednesday at the Middle East Institute in Washington, argued that Israel must negotiate with Hamas and that both sides should abandon demands for empty declarations (i.e. recognition), focusing instead on practical negotiations to solve practical problems. He also insisted that the withholding of international aid was foolish and would only strengthen the radical elements within Hamas, leaving those who would pursue negotiations with little standing within the organization.
It must be shown that there are benefits for pursuing peace and cooperating with the international community. The failure to demonstrate those benefits has undermined the standing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It needs to be clear that negotiations will deliver benefits. Gazit also argued that if traditional donors fail to fund the Palestinian government, funding will come from other, less palatable sources such as Iran.
It is also worth considering the fact that “hawks” have been the lead signers of peace treaties over the years. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, considered a terrorist by the British before the establishment of the state of Israel, signed the Camp David Accords with Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat in 1979. Ariel Sharon, whom an Israeli commission found “indirectly responsible” for the massacre of scores of civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, was seen as the man who could deliver a final settlement with his disengagement policies. Why, then, can’t the same be said for Hamas? Perhaps, like their hawkish counterparts, they are the ones who possess the political capital to make the difficult concessions and reach a final agreement.
While Hamas is not the ideal negotiating partner, the same can be said about Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a former member of Likud (Israel’s conservative and usually more bellicose political party). However, as Hamas has pointed out: you don’t negotiate peace treaties with your friends; you negotiate them with your enemies.
-The writer, a senior majoring in Middle East studies, is a Hatchet columnist.