Opening the Door to Hamas

by , March 16, 2008

Undermined by recent violence, the US-brokered Palestinian-Israeli peace process laid out in Annapolis, Maryland is in critical condition. And bringing the militant Islamic group Hamas into the fold could be the only way to save the faltering plan – an idea that even the George W. Bush administration may be reluctantly conceding is a necessary step.

Over the past several weeks, militants in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip fired a succession of rockets into nearby Israeli towns, followed inevitably by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) attacks on militants and incursions into Gaza.

"I can notice a slight change in the attitude of the Bush administration to the idea of engaging – even if indirectly and implicitly – Hamas in order to have a ceasefire in Gaza," said former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami at a conference at the New America Foundation. "They understand that Gaza can undermine Annapolis. And without a ceasefire in Gaza, Annapolis is doomed."

"Such a ceasefire needs to be seen, in my humble opinion, as the beginning; as a situation that might unleash a process leading to the gradual incorporation of Hamas into the wider peace process," he said, hoping that a reunited Palestinian Authority (PA) will legitimize the Annapolis talks.

Hamas effectively divided the power structure of the Palestinian territories last summer when it took Gaza by force after the failure of power-sharing talks with PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction, which still controls the West Bank from Ramallah.

The takeover triggered an Israeli siege of Gaza – setting off a humanitarian crisis which rights groups have called "man-made, completely avoidable" and reversible.

Prospects for a ceasefire in Gaza are raised by brief lulls in fighting, but fade as clashes reignite. Over a hundred Palestinians and several Israelis have been killed.

At the New America conference, Daniel Levy, the director of the foundation’s Middle East Initiative and a former Israeli negotiator, laid out a potential plan for a comprehensive ceasefire package that includes easing the siege, recognition of Hamas governance, and encouragement of a Palestinian national dialog to create a unity government.

Levy questions whether Abbas on his own has the political strength to create and enforce an agreement that would satisfy both societies in conflict.

But by taking a negotiated deal to the Palestinian people and forcing a choice between his vision of a two-state solution and Hamas’ rejection of Israel, Abbas may pressure Hamas to the table – essentially calling their bluff.

"If he has an agreement in hand, he’s sitting in the catbird seat," former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer told IPS.

"Rather than see these domestic constraints right now as necessary hurdles to peace, [Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert], at least at Annapolis, said that they are prepared to use the peace process to overcome domestic constraints even as they fight off challenges to their leadership," said Kurtzer.

But Levy proposes that the climate of violence and Abbas’ weakness might prevent a deal from getting done in the first place.

"Either it gets torpedoed because of the security reality, or Abbas simply looks around and sees that no one’s behind him," said Levy, questioning Palestinian society’s faith in Abbas and the legitimacy of his leadership.

The increased backing that the process stands to gain within the Palestinian territories should Hamas become involved in the process could also help Olmert bring a deal brimming with Israeli concessions to his own people. Opinion polls show that Israelis support talking to Hamas.

"You have such a wide consensus in Israel if the sense that the Israelis will have is that they did not just sign and agreement with the Sheriff of Ramallah – that on the other side there is somebody that can deliver. Otherwise they will say ‘Why should I remove settlements if on the other side we don’t have someone that can legitimize an agreement for his people?’" said Ben-Ami.

Indeed, Israeli settlements continue to be a highly contentious issue. In addition to the fact that, as David Ignatius reported in the Washington Post, the IDF has yet to dismantle any of the illegal Israeli settlements, the situation is compounded by Israeli approval for construction of new settlements, including hundreds of homes on the West Bank in the suburbs of annexed East Jerusalem.

"Other than the envelope around Jerusalem, which I think is seriously damaging to the two-state solution, it’s less the new facts being created on the ground. It’s more what it does here," said Levy tapping his temple with his index finger, "in people’s heads – especially on the Palestinian side. I think that the erosion in the belief of a two-state solution that continued settlement expansion encourages is one of the biggest problems."

Even if Hamas’ support of an agreement can buoy Israeli society’s faith in the process enough to make those concessions, some obstacles may still remain.

The US designates Hamas as a terrorist organization and has imposed sanctions on the group as part of an isolation policy. It remains to be seen if the Bush administration is willing to negotiate directly with Hamas – though they do quietly support Egyptian efforts to broker a ceasefire.

An upcoming trip to Israel and Palestine by US Vice President Dick Cheney – by all counts a hard-liner on terrorism – may be a good indicator of whether the administration is leaning towards engagement with Hamas.

"It behooves the United States, we believe, to maintain as open a position as possible with respect to dialog partners. When we choose not to dialog with someone, we ought to not build such a high wall around that policy so as to never open up a chance to change things as circumstances might allow," said Kurtzer.

Should the Bush administration refuse to talk, engagement of Hamas may need to wait until the next US administration comes to power in January next year. As is readily apparent in the four short months since the initial promise of the Annapolis conference, that is a long time for such a volatile situation.

"I don’t know if it’s two months or six months, but the moment of reality for the Annapolis negotiations isn’t here yet," said Levy. "We’re in what could be called ‘garbage time’ at the moment. My fear is that garbage time will stink so much to high heaven that it will asphyxiate the possibility of Annapolis actually bearing fruit."

Read more by Ali Gharib