Keep Hamas in Power, Israeli Leader Demands

"We need to warn against any attempt to bring about the collapse of the Hamas government," says former Israeli minister Shlomo Ben-Ami.

Ben-Ami, who served as minister for public security and later for foreign affairs, played a key negotiating role during the Middle East peace summit at Camp David in July 2000. Those talks were conducted between former U.S. President Bill Clinton, former chairman of the Palestinian Authority Yasser Arafat, and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

"We have the thought that when you discard supposedly an extremist option, what you get is a more moderate option. But you might get a more extremist option," Ben-Ami told IPS in an interview following a meeting on the Middle East held in Madrid. "You may also have a civil war. See the Algerian example, when in 1991 the Islamic Salvation Front was elected and the army toppled it. This led to a civil war that still persists."

Ben-Ami expressed concern over the "collapse of international diplomacy" in recent years, and said it needs to be restored. "For example, the Iranian problem has to be solved internationally, not only by the U.S. and Europe; otherwise it might not be solved. Same applies to the Israeli-Palestinian situation."

At the Camp David talks, he said, "Clinton did not have sufficient qualified time to build up an international alliance for peace. Such alliance has to include key Arab states."

Ben-Ami argued against laying too much blame on Hamas. "It is unfair to say that the victory of Hamas brought the end of the peace process. This had already died."

In this context the "Saudi Initiative" is important, he said. The Saudis had proposed at the Arab Summit in Beirut in 2002 that Israel should fully withdraw from all territories it had occupied since the 1967 Israeli-Arab war. Israel should offer a just solution for Palestinian refugees and accept the establishment of a sovereign independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as capital.

The initiative called on Arab countries, on the other hand, to enter into a peace agreement with Israel and consider the Middle East conflict ended.

Khaled Hroub, Palestinian director of the Arab media project at Cambridge University and author of two books on Hamas, also warned against "the consequences of attempting to bring down Hamas."

Hroub told IPS in an interview that the "coordinated efforts by Israel, the U.S., and some Arab and European countries" to bring about the failure of Hamas would lead to civil war, fragmentation, and violence. If the blockage of financial help persists, the consequence will be the radicalization of the Palestinian people, he said.

"If you bring down Hamas, you would push it to a more radical position," he said. "You may also effect a fragmentation within it. So far, Hamas is a unified movement, which is good for everybody. With Hamas in power you have one single counterpart you can talk to. If they reach an agreement, everybody will listen to them." Moreover, he said, "the military wing of Hamas is still listening to the political leadership."

Hroub stressed the need to unveil the "new face" of Hamas. He said Hamas’ talk of the "destruction of Israel" is rhetoric that should be ignored. Israelis, the Americans, and the Europeans should instead focus on what is really going on in the field, he said.

Hroub said a close look at the new statements from Hamas shows that it is not talking about the destruction of Israel or the liberation of all of Palestine, but of the dismantlement of Israeli settlements and of the right of refugees to return. All of this can be found in the United Nations resolutions, he said. "What Hamas needs most is time. If it is given the chance, and the time, we will see its new face."