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Mar. 27, 2009: Path to Peace Needs New Realism on All Sides March 27, 2009

Posted by Helena Cobban in Uncategorized.
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Analysis by Helena Cobban*

WASHINGTON, Mar 27 (IPS) – With Benjamin Netanyahu now close to announcing his government line-up in Israel, the issue of whether and how to include Hamas in Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking is moving to the top of the Middle East agenda.

On Thursday, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and eight other senior former U.S. officials issued a report that urged Pres. Barack Obama to find a way to include Hamas in the diplomacy. But how can this be done, given Washington’s longstanding prohibition on dealing with Hamas so long as it does not renounce terrorism, commit to all the previous commitments made by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and spell out it formal recognition of Israel?

One hint recently came from Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal himself. In a Mar. 18 interview with Australian journalist Paul McGeough, the Damascus-based Meshaal said, “Judge us by what we do today – not by what was written more than 20 years ago.”

That response came to a question about whether Hamas would be prepared to alter the movement’s 1988 founding charter, which called for Israel’s abolition. But the admonition to “Judge us by our actions, not by our words” could equally well sum up Hamas’s response to all the three of the demands that Washington has made of it.

For example, regarding Washington’s request for a Hamas “commitment” to the PLO’s prior commitments, Hamas reportedly responded that it would be prepared to undertake to “respect” those commitments in practice, but was not ready to express open “commitment” to them as a precondition for inclusion in the diplomacy.

Regarding recognising Israel, Meshaal recently told Henry Siegman – who coordinated the latest “Ten American Elders” initiative – that though Hamas is not ready to recognise Israel, it would be happy to let others in a national unity government negotiate a final peace with Israel that would then be submitted to an all-Palestinian referendum, and it would abide by the referendum’s results. (Siegman also said he got that commitment in writing from Meshaal.)

Meshaal and the rest of Hamas have maintained this position for several years now, including during their participation in a breakthrough 2005 agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and their endorsement of a policy document produced by Palestinian prisoners in Israel in 2006.

For now, though, there still are no Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations – with or without Hamas. Abbas suspended his participation in the negotiations during Israel’s war on Gaza and has said he will make no decision on rejoining them until Israel has a new government.

The negotiations that Abbas’s Fatah movement has been pursuing with Hamas in Cairo over a new Palestinian government have been aimed primarily at achieving a government that can “persuade” Israel to lift its lengthy and damaging siege on Gaza, though ensuring that that government can participate effectively in peace talks with Israel is certainly also an issue.

Hamas’s people have long complained that Fatah’s participation in peace talks so far has been a damaging failure. When Israel and the Fatah-headed PLO concluded the Oslo interim accord in 1993 they agreed to complete negotiations for a final peace by 1999, and the final peace was supposed to be implemented thereafter. Now, 10 years after that deadline, the final peace still has not been negotiated – and meantime, since Oslo, Israel has implanted an additional 200,000 illegal settlers into the West Bank.

In an interview in Hebron earlier this month, elected Hamas parliamentarian Nizar Ramadan told IPS, “Hamas is wise because it doesn’t want to get trapped into… allowing Israel to drag out the negotiations for another 15 years, like the 15 years they have already won from this present PA leadership.” (Three weeks later, Ramadan was among 10 high-level Hamas politicians in the West Bank arrested by Israel and held without charge or trial.)

Hamas can therefore be expected to push for speedy conclusion of the final peace talks – and also, for a complete halt to all settlement construction while these negotiations continue. Indeed, outgoing Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad also insists on a complete halt to settlement building as a precondition for any resumption of the negotiations.

Hamas’s negotiating posture is tougher than Fatah’s in other ways, too. No one in Hamas has given any indication they would consider the kind of border adjustments the Fatah negotiators have proposed – for East Jerusalem and for other parts of the West Bank. And no one in Hamas has given any sign of the extreme flexibility the Fatah negotiators have shown regarding the claims of the six-million-plus descendants of Palestinians made refugees in the fighting of 1948 to return to their family homes and lands in the area that became Israel that year.

Indeed, Hamas’s political style is altogether different from Fatah’s. If Hamas makes concessions, it will not give them to Israel upfront and then simply sit and wait for Israel to reciprocate, as Fatah did. Rather, it can be expected to bargain hard and fast inside a negotiating room, most likely far away from the public eye, while continuing to mount vigorous worldwide campaigns to bolster support for its negotiating position.

And judging by its very good (though not perfect) participation in limited-purview ceasefires in Gaza in 2005 and 2008, if Hamas is fully included in a final-peace negotiation, it can be expected to abide by the terms of a general ceasefire, provided this is one equally required of, and observed by, all parties.

Does a formula that involves including Hamas have a chance of being adopted by either Washington or a Netanyahu government? There are some intriguing indications that it might. A poll the “J Street” organisation commissioned of Jewish Americans at the end of February found 60 percent of respondents favoured the idea of Washington working with a unified Hamas-Fatah Palestinian government.

Some U.S. Jewish organisations and Christian Zionist organisations might continue to lobby strongly against including Hamas. But the numbers from J Street show that if Obama is decisive, clear, and sensitive in explaining a Hamas-including policy, he could hope to win substantial support for it – including within the U.S. Jewish community.

In Israel, meanwhile, the new government that’s shaping up will include members from two significant parties that support a two-state outcome: Labour and the ideologically very diverse Yisrael Beitenu. Plus, crucially, popular support from Israelis for negotiating with a joint Hamas-Fatah government now runs at 69 percent.

And of course, if Pres. Obama shows that he is determined to do what is best for the U.S.’s – and Israel’s – long-term interests, as he understands them, then he has considerable ability both to shape both Israeli public opinion and the structure of the incentives the U.S. offers to Israel for the various choices it makes.

When the outgoing Israeli government launched the Gaza war in December, it was aiming either to weaken Hamas a lot, or completely crush it. It failed to achieve either goal. Support for Hamas increased among Palestinian communities in the West Bank and in many key Arab countries.

And though it dipped among the relatively small population of Gaza itself, still, Hamas’s networks of leaders and activists in Gaza, the West Bank, and throughout the Arab world had proved their ability to withstand even that very lethal ordeal by fire.

Now, diplomats in Washington and the rest of the world are starting to deal with that reality.

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*Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at http://www.JustWorldNews.org.

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