Convergence toward dialogue
The outcome of the Israeli elections will determine to a great extent the nature of the relations between Israel and the Palestinians for the years to come. The statements made this week by Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Ismail Haniyeh mark a significant change in Hamas's position.
Haniyeh said: "We don't want a whirlpool of blood in this region. We want the rights and dignity of our people. We also want to put an end to this complicated conflict that has been going on for decades… Hamas's presence in power marks the beginning of resolving the crisis."
This is the first time a Hamas leader has spoken about the
possibility of ending the conflict with Israel and it raises serious questions
regarding the wisdom of Israel's policy of unilateralism.
Haim Ramon said that Israel will give the Palestinians one year to fulfill their road map commitments regarding "one Authority - one gun," after which Israel would act unilaterally to determine Israel's borders without negotiations.
It is not impossible to imagine that, in the interest of creating law and order in the Palestinian territories, the Hamas-led PA would be successful in what the Fatah-led PA was incapable of doing. If Hamas does consolidate all the Palestinian forces into one unified command subordinate to the prime minister and the minister of interior, the PA will be fulfilling one of the road map's Phase I obligations.
Along with this, Israeli security experts are in agreement that Hamas is most likely going to extend the tahdiyeh - the calm - keeping Hamas fighters outside the circle of terrorism. Even if there is no Hamas declaration regarding recognizing Israel and the agreements signed between Israel and the PLO, Hamas's operational behavior could signal de-facto recognition of agreements, including the road map.
Haniyeh's statements regarding Hamas's desire to end the conflict after achieving Palestinian rights should pave the way toward negotiations with Israel.
ISRAELI UNILATERALISM is one of the reasons that led to the Hamas victory. Palestinians accept the narrative that Hamas attacks against Israel led to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to evacuate the Gaza Strip.
It doesn't really matter if this interpretation is correct; from the perspective of a large majority of Palestinians it is true. It is also true that further Israeli unilateralism is likely to encourage Palestinians to take up arms against Israel rather than encourage them to adopt diplomacy and negotiations as their main modus operandi with Israel.
Hamas has two main strategic agendas, one Islamic and one national. The main emphasis in the next few years will be on the latter. The primary aim of this agenda will be to withdraw from concessions Fatah was perceived by some to have made: mutual recognition as a pre-condition to negotiations, territorial compromises in Jerusalem, recognition of settlement blocs, and territorial exchanges and even compromises on the implementation of the "right of return."
Nevertheless, Israeli and Palestinian positions have always been shaped through the interactions between the parties. The absurdity of the current situation is that according to public opinion polls, both publics clearly prefer going back to negotiations. Positions on the key issues are closer than ever to creating possibilities for agreements. The large majority of both publics continue to support the two-state solution including recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of both governments.
Mahmoud Abbas has stated that it is possible to reach an agreement within one year. Yet despite the convergence of Israeli and Palestinian public opinion, the chances of negotiations have never been more remote. Without engagement, Israel and Palestine are like two trains traveling on the same line, on a collision course that everyone can see in advance and no one is doing anything to prevent.
Israel should search out "cracks" in the Hamas wall of non-engagement, even without formal declarations on the main Israeli demands. At least one Hamas minister has stated a willingness to talk to the Israelis. Secret talks with Hamas leaders should be advanced as well without any pre-conditions.
If Israel is concerned about appearing to break the international boycott against Hamas which it is promoting, the government could allow for deniability - the engagement of Hamas leaders by non-officials with the aim of advancing possible Hamas moderation.
BOTH SIDES, with the full support of the international community, must continue to verbalize the belief in negotiations and engagement. Unilateralism should not be accepted as the be-all and end-all of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Both sides must encourage, advance and enable engagement at every level possible. If operational contacts can be advanced by security people, if on-the-ground cooperation can be fostered by municipalities, if dialogue activities can be advanced by civil society organizations - all of these must become policy directives.
The two-state solution remains the supreme national security interest of both Israel and Palestine. It can emerge only from a negotiated process.
The viability of that solution will not last forever, and the clock is rapidly ticking on its legitimacy and feasibility. The thrill of unilateralism in Israel has created a fantasy that it will resolve the conflict. The notion of no-partner (on both sides) has distorted the reality that there is a potential partner.
However, if the message of no-partner is constantly repeated, reinforced by unilateralism, there will, in fact, never be a partner.
The writer is the Israeli Co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. www.ipcri.org
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