Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear, as if it needed clarifying, that he is uninterested in finding peace with the Palestinians. He did this by issuing an ultimatum to Fatah and its leader, PA President Mahmoud Abbas: you can either reconcile with Hamas or make peace with Israel, not both.
More than once on my blog, I’ve been criticized by commenters for my view of Hamas. I see them as a reactionary religious-nationalist movement. They have no compunction about attacking civilians, are appropriately called terrorists, have a poor human rights record in Gaza (a score on which anyone who has read my work will know I have been at least as critical of the Israeli occupation record as well as the PA), and are legitimately mistrusted.
But Hamas is, like it or not, also a part of the Palestinian body politic. In the early 1980s, when Israel tacitly permitted the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood to organize in the hope that it would provide a religious, but much less threatening, counterweight to the PLO, they surely did not have any idea what they were doing. Hamas grew out of that, and it is a regrettable development, in my view for both sides.
And, again like it or not, they control the Gaza Strip. All efforts to shake their rule there have failed, and if elections were held today among all Palestinians, all polls indicate they would have significant, albeit clearly minority, support. Put simply, the option of being able to reach a deal with the Palestinians without Hamas just does not exist.
And we can thank ourselves for that. In 2006, the United States insisted on Palestinian elections, and Hamas, as the main party in the List of Change and Reform, won the most seats, 74 of 132. Before the newly elected PA could form any sort of policy on anything, Israel and the Quartet (the US, EU, UN and Russian Federation) instituted a regime of economic sanctions on it. These actions reverberated around the Arab world, sending the message that America supports democracy as long as it produces outcomes we approve of.
Fatah did not take defeat easily and, backed by US funding and Israeli and Western encouragement, consistently struggled with Hamas, both before and after a unity agreement was brokered by Saudi Arabia. The struggle ended with Hamas forcibly and brutally expelling Fatah from the Gaza Strip, the new Palestinian Legislative Council being effectively nullified and a Fatah government ensconced in power in the West Bank (“power” being a very relative term when speaking of an impotent government under Israeli occupation). Gaza has, of course, been under siege ever since.
Palestinians may not have them, but they are still entitled to the same rights as anyone else. Hamas is clearly guilty of war crimes, but they are also a political party. The US’ and Israel’s insistence on trying to dictate who can and cannot be part of the political process in Palestine, as well as in Lebanon and other parts of the world, has proven ineffective and a barrier to constructive action. Moreover, it’s proven futile—the stance itself often serves as a primary source of strength for the very groups so targeted.
In the case of the Palestinians, many from the left and the right agree on this point, though in different ways. From mainstream publications like TIME and the Christian Science Monitor to progressive Israeli bloggers, the idea that a resolution of this conflict that leads to security for Israelis and freedom for Palestinians requires talking with Hamas has been gaining traction for years. On the other side, there is a frequent argument made that the Palestinian split means that Mahmoud Abbas can’t deliver peace. There is a pretty wide spectrum out there advocating engagement with Hamas.
The question must be asked of Netanyahu: if you give Abbas the choice of reconciliation with Hamas and peace with Israel, what choice can he make that can reasonably be expected to lead to an end of the occupation?
Indeed, what is Bibi actually offering here? Settlements continue to chew up space in the West Bank, more settlements are quickly rendering moot the old Clinton formulation in Jerusalem of “what is Jewish is Israel’s and what is Arab is Palestinian,” Bibi has made it clear that Israel must remain in the Jordan Valley and that Israel will not relinquish far-flung settlements like Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel which cut deep into the West Bank and compromise territorial contiguity. What’s left of a Palestinian “state” in Bibi’s vision is barely scraps.
Moreover, even the kindest interpretation of the revelations brought by the Palestine Papers demonstrates that Netanyahu wanted a significantly better deal than the one the PA negotiators (since ousted by popular outrage at their largesse) made to Ehud Olmert in his waning days. This is clear from Bibi’s insistence from day one that, contrary to diplomatic norms, talks with his predecessor were to be voided and negotiations started all over again.
True advocates of peace certainly do not have to (nor should they) like Hamas or be happy about their inclusion in a Palestinian unity government. But any government must not be viewed by the stances of the parties within it, but by the policies of that government. Likud does not accept the two-state solution, but Netanyahu, officially, as Prime Minister, does. That’s what we go by; to the extent that a case can be made that Israel is not pursuing a legitimate two-state solution, it is made based on the government’s actions, not on Likud’s stances.
The Palestinians must have the same opportunity. The Quartet laid down conditions for Hamas to be dealt with: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and abiding by past agreements struck by the PA. (I’ll add that it would be a real pleasure if Israel were also pressured to recognize Palestine and to renounce the well-documented human rights abuses it commits) If a Palestinian government that includes Hamas does not change its policy regarding those conditions that should be sufficient.
Foreign governments do not, as a rule, deal with Likud, nor with Labor, Kadima, Meretz or Yisrael Beiteinu, for that matter. They deal with the Israeli government. The Palestinians should be treated the same. If a unity government pursues Hamas policies, there are clear consequences. But we should not be dictating who can participate in Palestinian politics. It is no different from boycotting Israel because Kahanists like Michael Ben-Ari are in the government or the US because convicted felons like Elliott Abrams still find roles in policy making. Such a stance would be wrong and self-defeating.
Just like it is here.