The Hamas reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden almost says it all. Hamas condemned the US action and extolled this monster as a “holy warrior.” This is actually a surprise since Hamas has not advocated global jihad and it has violently suppressed al Qaeda-linked groups in Gaza.
Although it has some potential to be for the good, I fear that this reconciliation agreement is not a step forward. On the bright side, it permits the possibility for Hamas to indirectly endorse a two-state solution with Israel, by acknowledging that the PLO remains authorized to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian people (a holdover provision of the Oslo Accords) and implies that Hamas would not oppose peace with Israel if such an agreement were ratified in a referendum. But if Hamas continues to insist that all Palestinian exiles in their diaspora—or at least those designated as refugees—should vote in this referendum (not just Palestinians in the territories), any peace agreement would be that much harder to sell; this is because such an agreement would of necessity affirm a right to compensation but not a wholesale right of return to what is now Israel.
Moreover, one would have to trust Hamas to be true to its word (a tall order), and for Hamas and Fatah to coexist peacefully—as they have not in the past. The issue all of us should address is whether Hamas will ever deal diplomatically and non-violently with Israel. If the Israeli government were wiser than it is, it would pose exactly this in response to the Fatah-Hamas agreement, rather than rejecting it outright. The prevailing international view is that Israel refuses to recognize and negotiate with Hamas, but the opposite (that Hamas refuses to recognize Israel) is more relevant.
My thoughts return to the unfortunate results of the Palestinian election in
January 2006. After Israel withdrew its soldiers and its 8,000 settlers from Gaza in the summer of 2005, the Bush administration decided to bring “democracy” to the Palestinians. It insisted on running a parliamentary election and allowing Hamas to participate.
None other than Yossi Beilin, a principle negotiator of Oslo, has pointed out that Hamas was not legally qualified to run without meeting the requirements of the Oslo agreements still in effect from the 1990s: primarily to renounce violence and accept Israel’s existence. Qualifying for elections in this way might have been a lever to get Hamas to change its spots, but the Bush State Department insisted on allowing Hamas to run as it was, cynically assuming that it would not win. Hamas won a plurality of votes with 44 percent to Fatah’s 42 percent and took power early in 2006. Hamas earned a golden opportunity to prove itself a responsible party that could advance legitimate Palestinian aspirations for independence, yet it failed abysmally.
Soon after its election, Hamas declared a truce, but it was still allowing other factions to fire at Israel. Hamas even lauded as “resistance” two successful suicide bombings—one in Tel Aviv and another in Ashdod. A coalition of groups, including Hamas, captured Gilad Shalit while killing two other Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid in June of 2006. As we know, things only went downhill from there.
So there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical of this agreement, but the Netanyahu government’s entirely predictable response also gives rise to skepticism. Netanyahu’s statement to the Palestinian Authority that it’s either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas, but that it can’t have both, is a perfect excuse for not negotiating with the Palestinians. Israel can only lose in thereby attempting to maintain a status quo that is increasingly untenable.
The PA’s apparent embrace of Hamas reflects its loss of faith in the possibility of negotiating a reasonable deal with Israel under its current leadership. This also fits hand in glove with the Palestinian threat to go to the United Nations General Assembly in September for international recognition of a Palestinian state. The only way for Israel to head off this strategy is to return to the kind of deal that Olmert attempted with Abbas back in 2008, a negotiating process that was aborted by Olmert’s legal difficulties and the Gaza war of Dec. ’08-Jan. ’09. But we can’t expect Netanyahu to do that.