Why We Cannot Talk With Hamas

Polls show that a majority of the Israelis support negotiations with Hamas, but official Israel refuses to talk to it, at any level. Israel instead launches a worldwide campaign to persuade all countries to boycott Hamas and to join its military and financial blockade on the newly formed Hamas government. If starving the Palestinian people is the outcome, so be it: the Arabs should learn the price of democracy.

Why can’t Israel talk to Hamas? Several arguments are given; are they valid – or just excuses?

1. Because They Don’t Recognize Israel

Hamas recognizes Israel de facto: unlike many Arab states in the past that officially referred to Israel as "the Zionist entity," Hamas mentions Israel by name in its notorious charter; but it does deny Israel’s right to exist, its existence de jure.

Is this a good reason not to talk to Hamas? Hardly. Hamas’ non-recognition may be stupid, childish, and unrealistic: no one really believes Israel will disappear in any foreseeable future, or that non-recognition makes any difference. On the other hand, Israel’s apparent insistence on this issue is just as silly, childish, and unrealistic, and for the same reason. If Hamas had the power to annihilate Israel, it would have done so with or without recognizing it first.

Many forget that this game has a precise historic precedent. Just like the Hamas Charter of 1988, the PLO has a charter too, written in 1964, which described the establishment of the state of Israel as “entirely illegal” (Article 19). Nevertheless, Israel had no problem talking, negotiating, signing several agreements, and cooperating widely with the PLO in spite of its charter. While signing the joint Declaration of Principles in 1993, Israel indeed demanded that the charter be changed; but it wasn’t changed until 1998, and even the validity of this change was disputed (it was the Israeli government that tried to persuade the public of its validity).

The question of recognition is therefore a fake argument against talking to Hamas. Just like Arafat in his time, Hamas has already released messages about its willingness to recognize Israel, and just like it did with Arafat, Israel could be satisfied with those ambiguous hints and postpone its demand to modify the Hamas Charter to a later stage, if Israel were interested in negotiating with Hamas.

2. Because They Are Terrorists

Legally, this is a very good argument, and has therefore persuaded many countries on the globe to outlaw Hamas. I for one truly believe that terrorism – i.e., violence against noncombatants – is a despicable and unacceptable atrocity. Politics, however, is not about legalism. Israel’s political echelon has been doing its utmost to blur the distinction between terrorism and legitimate resistance to the occupation. The Israeli media represent the entire Palestinian resistance to the occupation – by stones or bombs, in the occupied territories or in Israel proper, against soldiers, settlers, or civilians – as "terrorism." Israel’s state terrorism – like the present bombing of Gaza, where civilian homes are intentionally within the error-margins of Israel’s artillery shelling – are accompanied by propaganda that blurs the concept of terrorism in a similar manner: Israeli politicians and media justify Palestinian civilian casualties by accusing them of supporting violence against Israel, or, in the present case, of not stopping Qassam missile launchers (surely the 9-year-old girl killed in an Israeli shelling last week could have done much more to stop Palestinian militants).

Last week supplied rather embarrassing evidence for this. Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni – a lawyer by profession – mentioned the obvious legal distinction by saying that Palestinians who killed Israeli soldiers were not terrorists. Obvious distinction? Not in Israel: her words provoked an immense scandal, including calls for her resignation, and the minister was reproached for “legitimizing terrorism,” no less. In an amusing twist, Livni was then accused of trying to clear her father’s name of the "terrorist" etiquette: Eitan Livni was "director of operations" for the Irgun, a Jewish nationalist group that fought against British rule in Palestine. The hidden assumption behind this funny accusation is that the Zionist militias in the 1930s and 1940s did not target civilians – historical nonsense, of course, as historian Tom Segev reminds in his weekly column in Ha’aretz:

"On July 6, 1938, Irgun people snuck a bomb into the produce market on Hamelachim Street in Haifa. […] 18 Arabs were killed and 38 wounded in the operation. Two days later, Irgun people carried out an attack in Jerusalem; four Arabs were killed. Ten days after that, the Irgun returned to the Haifa market: 27 Arabs were killed and 47 wounded."

So terrorism is not a reason for not talking to Hamas – it’s just an excuse (and a pretty good one too, alas). One should also remember that Hamas has never struck outside Israel/Palestine, so that any attempt to portray it as part of global terrorism is futile. Moreover, Hamas has been observing, almost without exception, the Tahdiyya or "lull" it took upon itself a year and a half ago. (The Qassam missiles and occasional terror attacks on Israelis are the work of other Palestinian organizations.) There is massive evidence, therefore, that in spite of its radical Islamist rhetoric and its support for terror attacks, Hamas is predominantly a Palestinian liberation movement, which, like so many other liberation movements in history – from the Irgun to the FLN – resorts to terrorism as a (deplorable, but not inherent) tactic.

3. Because They’re Corrupt

As if these excuses were not enough, there’s now a new argument against Hamas: their newly appointed director-general of the police forces in the Interior Ministry, Jamal Abu Samhadana, is described not just as a terrorist, but as "a corrupt Mafioso." I came across this highly original argument in a column by one Moshe Elad (on Hebrew Ynet), a former senior army officer now in academia. (By the way, a military career is an excellent ticket into Israel’s universities: the officer’s Palestinian collaborators become the professor’s "informants.") The argument is interesting because of its ludicrous transparency: the entire PLO leadership during the Oslo years were in fact Mafiosi, using their close, monopolistic economic ties with Israel’s business elite to enrich themselves by exploiting the Palestinian masses; Israel cooperated with them eagerly. It was the PLO’s corruption, and its selling out of Palestinian interests to Israel, that made Hamas win the Palestinian elections. What disturbs Israel is not the alleged corruption of Hamas, but the fact that, unlike Fatah, Hamas is not willing to be co-opted.

With Whom Will Israel Talk?

The entire Israeli political spectrum – from Likud and the far Right to Meretz and the Zionist Left – are now in love with imposing a diktat (euphemized as "unilateral measures") on the Palestinians, without any negotiations with them (euphemized as "negotiated with the international community"). There is overwhelming political support for this futile "peace" policy in the new Knesset, and Israel believes the U.S. will give its usual automatic backing. Under these circumstances, a Palestinian partner is Israel’s nightmare, not its dream. Palestinian President Abbas is not a Hamas member: he recognizes Israel’s right to exist, he deplores terrorism, and he isn’t even accused of corruption. Still, Israel refuses to negotiate with him. If we don’t talk with Abbas, why should we talk to Hamas, now that we believe we can impose our colonialist visions unilaterally? As long as the pervert vision of "unilateralism" guides Israel’s policy, excuses for not talking to the Palestinians will be mass-produced by Israel’s propaganda industry.

Author: Ran HaCohen

Dr. Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in computer science, an M.A. in comparative literature, and a Ph.D. in Jewish studies. He is a university teacher in Israel. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English, and Dutch). HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter From Israel" appears occasionally at Antiwar.com.