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Israel and Hamas Test the Waters?

Interesting noises have been coming recently from the leader of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Mashal, and the Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak.  Looking at what they both said in relatively quick succession, one might even be tempted to draw the inference that perhaps this was coordinated and that something is cooking here.  Khaled Mashal gave an interview to the Palestinian daily al-Ayyam that appeared on April 2nd (I know, I know, we have to listen to what Palestinian leaders tell their own public in their own language, and not…wait a minute, this was in their own language.  This was an interview in Arabic in a Palestinian paper.  I guess people will now say you have to start listening to what they say in Yiddish).  Being serious again, Mashal in this interview explicitly endorses a Palestinian state within the ’67 borders, he in effect accepts the Arab initiative and reiterates Hamas support for the previous agreements reached with Fatah and the Palestinian national platform (the ‘Prisoners’ Documents’ and Mecca Agreement).  Here is an excerpt from that interview with al-Ayyam:
    
al-Ayyam:  What would you say to those Israelis who are calling on their government to talk to Hamas?
KM:  I would advise them to pressure their government to stop its aggression against our people, end the occupation, and recognize Palestinian rights, especially since the Arabs and         Palestinians have adopted a joint position regarding the establishment of a Palestinian state within the borders of 1967.
al-Ayyam:  When you say ‘the borders of 1967,’ is that a strategic position or just tactics?
KM:  Most Palestinian factions agreed in the [Fatah-Hamas] Accord Document signed in 2006 that a future Palestinian state should be established within the borders of 1967, including Jerusalem, as well as the right of return and full sovereignty. This is the Palestinian position. It is also the official Arab position, with a few differences in detail. Israel has to declare its commitment to such a solution.
al-Ayyam:  But the Europeans and Americans say that Hamas calls for the destruction of the state of Israel, and consequently would have nothing to do with it. What would you say to them?
KM:  We as a movement are committed to a political program that we agreed upon with other Palestinian factions, a program that is supported by the Arab world. Consequently, the Americans, Europeans, and other international parties must reconcile themselves with this political reality and must judge us accordingly. You do not judge people by what you believe is in their heads, but by what they have committed themselves to on paper. The major challenge facing the Americans and others in the international community is how to force Israel into accepting what we have offered. This is the solution. After that, whether one wishes to recognize Israel or not is his affair.
In this interview Mashal also addressed the need for Palestinian unity and a renewed internal Palestinian dialogue.  This has been a consistent Hamas theme, although both sides, Fatah and Hamas, blame the other for lack of progress.  Interestingly, Mashal seems to blame the Americans even more than the Israelis for interfering to prevent Palestinian internal reconciliation.  Here is Mashal again:

Palestinian national unity is essential, and dealing with the current state of disunity is critical...However, there are many other factors that have been acting against the possibility of dialogue, and these unfortunately have had the upper hand. The most important of these negative factors has been U.S. and Israeli interference. Sadly, inter-Palestinian dialogue is now more of an American decision than it is a Palestinian or an Arab one…Only when the Americans realize that coercion does not work will they begin working for reconciliation as the only means for pushing Palestinian-Israeli peace talks forwards.
That last sentence seems very much like Khaled Mashal expressing encouragement for peace talks and a desire for their success—again, I think this interview, if not a substantive breakthrough, is at least very significant and the extent to which it is ignored suggests negligence and irresponsibility by media and policy-makers alike.  

Or maybe Ehud Barak was this time doing the responsible thing and not ignoring Mashal’s remarks.  Ehud Barak gave an interview to Der Spiegel that was due to coincide with a planned visit to Germany (a visit Barak then postponed).  The interview appears in English in Der Spiegel online, and it appears that the interview happened after the Mashal comments.  Here is what Barak told the German newspaper regarding Israel and Hamas: “…if the terror from Gaza Strip stops and the smuggling of weapons stops, the door will be open for a different kind of relationship.” Barak went on to say the following:

SPIEGEL: Is there a risk of Hamas taking over the West Bank?
Barak: There is a clear risk that this will happen. Not necessarily by bullets, though—it could possibly be by the ballot.
SPIEGEL: Would you cease negotiating with Abbas, if he and Hamas were to reconciliate?
Barak: I do not pretend to control their events. We are against Hamas. But I am in no position to say whether it is better for them to have a unity government or whether Abbas should try to re-conquer the Gaza Strip. To those of my Israeli cabinet colleagues who think we can easily destroy Hamas, I am saying: You cannot dictate this to another person. It didn’t work in Afghanistan and not in Iraq. It doesn’t work in the Middle East.

Barak’s comments on Iraq and Afghanistan are interesting as a stand alone, but on the Israel/Hamas issue, as Ma’ariv lead commentator Ben Caspit noted

“contrary to the official position of the government of Israel, Barak refrained from declaring that in such a case (the case of Abbas forming a unity government with Hamas—DL)…Israel would break off contact with Abu Mazen…From Barak’s statements it emerges that the ‘disk has been changed recently’, at least in the security establishment, and the illusions that it will be possible ‘to bring down Hamas rule’, or ‘to shatter the organization,’ have become obsolete, and that Israel is now prepared to consider another policy" (Ben Caspit, Ma’ariv).

Ehud Barak, as minister of Defense, probably has more influence over Israel’s day-to-day policy vis a vis Hamas than anyone else.  Is Barak possibly leading a realist line within the Israeli cabinet—skepticism regarding Annapolis and a focus on looking afresh at the internal Palestinian situation and the Gaza reality—perhaps even suggesting that a new security dynamic based on these would allow for a more meaningful Annapolis process?  

That is probably me speculating too far.  I do think that there is a debate within the Israeli establishment and an element of a rethink regarding Hamas, the approach to Gaza and the approach to Palestinian national unity.  I do not think that a strong case is being made, at least not yet, in favor of pursuing a cease-fire and a green-light for Palestinian national unity as a building block for more robust peace negotiations.  Even if the Mashal and Barak interview content was not coordinated (and I doubt it was), it is still part of an ongoing interaction of testing and prodding between Israel and Hamas that sometimes expresses itself in violence, sometimes in interview and words, and sometimes via mediators.  

That interaction is not static but it is still insufficiently dynamic and decisive.  Here is the option that I among others have been advocating:

1)  A cease-fire package is reached that includes:  no attacks from Gaza into Israel or vice-versa, more effective and verifiable efforts to prevent weapons entering Gaza, the opening of Gaza crossings in an agreed, appropriate and monitored way, for goods and persons, between Gaza and Israel and Gaza and Egypt.  To be sustainable the cease-fire would almost certainly have to be extended to the West-Bank.  Ideally the package is expanded to include a prisoner exchange seeing the release of Gilad Shalit.  

2)  Ideally this package is agreed between Israel and President Abbas who also acts on behalf of Hamas.  He has brokered deals that include Hamas in the past.  If such an option continues to prove impossible then Israel reaches a set of back-to-back arrangements regarding Gaza (as above and probably mediated by Egypt) and with the PA regarding the role it would play (including at the Gaza border crossings).

3)  The Palestinians resume a national dialogue which does not entail the threat of an Israeli or American veto or the cessation, as a consequence, of the peace process.  The details would probably be different but the basic outline would be similar to the Mecca agreement (of February 2007)—including acceptance of the authority of Abbas to negotiate with Israel.  Obviously to succeed better than last time, a new Palestinian internal arrangement would require broader acceptance, effective implementation and external support.  

4) Political negotiations continue between Israel and Abbas under conditions of improved security and with a Palestinian interlocutor who has greater authority and legitimacy to both pursue talks and to implement anything agreed.  Ideally, Syria is also re-engaged in a substantive diplomatic way, a move which could positively impact both the regional and intra-Palestinian dynamic (but more of that another time).  

So why is it not happening?  

  • For starters, Israel has yet to make the switch in relation to the internal Palestinian scene and is apparently unsure whether it prefers a non-implementable shelf agreement or an implementable end-of-occupation agreement.
  • The Fatah leadership has yet to make up its own mind on whether it is ready for the power-sharing and PLO reform that internal reconciliation entails. The group around Abbas remains unenthusiastic, but according to reports a new force is emerging in Fatah (informally known as the group of 25—all members of the Fatah Revolutionary Council) who back extensive reform within Fatah, renewed dialogue with Hamas and an anti-corruption drive amongst other things.  The group’s leaders are thought to include Marwan Barghouti, Nasser al-Kidwa (former PLO UN Ambassador and Yasser Arafat’s nephew), Ahmed Hils (an anti-Dahlan Fatah leader in Gaza), and Jibril Rajoub (an ex-security chief).  
  • Hamas may not at the moment be ready for the above kind of deals on terms that could be accepted by Israel and Fatah respectively.  Much of the Middle East and certainly America’s adversaries are adopting a Keith Olberman posture—they are counting down the days of the Bush administration and are in no mood to facilitate any Bush achievements.  
  • And U.S. Policy.  The Bush administration still seems to think that an agreement on paper will overcome a complex reality rather than what is staring most people in the face, that a complex reality will undermine an agreement on paper.  
Sure we can and likely will re-visit all of this in 9 months, but things could further unravel by then, especially if the last-ditch Bush peace effort proves to be ill-conceived and counter-productive...and no prizes for guessing the odds that the bookies are offering on that one...

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 8, 2008 8:28 PM.

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