December 7, 2007

Prime Minister Olmert, President Bush, and President Abbas

"There is no doubt that ultimately for political, economic and geopolitical reasons, the West Bank and Gaza must be one territorial unit."

Since the Hamas military takeover of Gaza in June 2007, the organization has suffered a number of blows that have left it weakened. Its support among Palestinians has dropped markedly due to the public’s displeasure with both the violent nature of the Gaza takeover and the increasing social restrictions associated with Hamas rule. Added to that is Hamas’ inability to break out of its international isolation and the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza. Finally, the attendance of even Syria, where an anti-Annapolis conference featuring Hamas had been planned and subsequently canceled, at the Annapolis meeting, left Hamas on the side of Iran as the two rejectionist parties to the new peace effort.

To paraphrase Mark Twain however, we should not greatly exaggerate reports of Hamas’ demise. Hamas cannot be ignored and shut off in Gaza indefinitely. At some point, and certainly before any future Israeli-Palestinian peace deal can be implemented, there must be Palestinian reconciliation. The question is when and how.

There are increasing calls, including among the Israeli left, for some sort of accommodation to be reached with Hamas now. There is no doubt that ultimately, for political, economic and geopolitical reasons, the West Bank and Gaza must be one territorial unit. Hamas represents a sizable Palestinian constituency that must be engaged and become part of the political system.

But the chances of that happening in the near future are slim. Engaging Hamas without a reversal of its Gaza takeover and without its acceptance of the two-state solution paradigm and all related agreements will serve only to legitimize the takeover. It would also result in the re-freezing of direly needed international aid to the Palestinians and abort current peace prospects.

In addition, the Gaza takeover was conducted by elements of Hamas representing the hard-line ideological as opposed to pragmatic nationalist strains within the organization. Engaging these elements would validate their violent takeover and weaken more moderate elements.Official and unofficial messaging to Hamas, however, must stress that their current isolation is not an effort to destroy them, but would end conditionally.

With reconciliation not a near-term option, concerns have been voiced that any peace agreement reached with Israel would lack legitimacy, since it excludes a sizable minority of the Palestinian people. In addition, Hamas may sabotage any agreement through violence against Israel, with the resultant and inevitable harsh Israeli response.

It is important here to distinguish between reaching an agreement and implementing it. It is entirely possible for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to reach an agreement with Israel in the following year without Hamas if Israel, the Palestinians and the United States live up to their political responsibilities and exercise needed political will.

Implementing a peace agreement, however, will require Palestinian reconciliation. If such an agreement meets Palestinian national aspirations and is backed by key Arab countries, namely Saudi Arabia, it is hard to imagine Hamas opposing it and risking further alienating the Palestinian people.

Given the deep ideological differences between Hamas and Fatah and the fact that past attempts at national unity had papered these differences over, the reconciliation must include Hamas accepting the PLO charter, U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 and the two-state solution paradigm. Hamas must understand that even elections that legitimately brought it to power do not give it license to attempt to take over the PLO and dismantle the whole structure of "statehood through negotiations." Fatah, for its part, must relinquish its monopoly over governance and security institutions once Hamas accepts the above elements.

The PA’s basic message — liberation through negotiation — needs serious rehabilitation through significant, concrete and credible progress toward a permanent status deal and the establishment of a Palestinian state. If such progress is made, Hamas will find itself in the untenable and losing position of campaigning against a Palestinian state. Palestinian president Abbas will be able to negotiate the inevitable future agreement with Hamas for national unity from a position of strength and based on acceptable conditions.

If, on the other hand, the national secular movement as represented by the PLO fails, the outlook will be bleak. We will witness either a full disintegration of the Palestinian polity or a Hamas takeover of the Palestinian society and political system. The Palestinian national cause will regress to where it was in the late 1960s: a movement fighting for recognition at the margins of the international system. The implications of this for Israel, the Arab world, and the West are best avoided.

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