Copyright (c) 2006 The Daily Star

To deal with Hamas, Israel might consider NGOs

By Yossi Ben Ari
Commentary by
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Not even the most creative scriptwriter could have invented the kind of deadlocked situation that resulted from the recent Palestinian elections. On one hand, the Israeli government clearly declares that since Hamas is a terror organization that aims to destroy the Jewish state, a Hamas-led government will never be a partner for any negotiations. On the other, Hamas is interested in talking with the Israeli government, but only for the purpose of negotiating a long-term truce. At the same time, the organization continues to deny Israel's right to exist, demands a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and refuses Israel's demand that the conflict be ended with a formal, signed peace agreement.

 There are many Israelis satisfied with the Palestinian election outcome. After years of ambiguity vis-a-vis the Palestinians, the picture, in their opinion, is at last very clear: Israel can fully isolate itself from its surroundings. If the "bad guys" dare to violate its security, there will be no restrictions on crushing the rivals to dust. But, is it really in Israel's best interest to let those unique and limited relations with the Palestinians, so recently constructed, simply evaporate? Can Israel really ignore a potential collapse of Palestinian society and starvation of its population? Won't the repercussions ricochet in a boomerang curve right back at Israel?

 Wise policy can save everyone a lot of trouble. That's why Israel needs to open a negotiation channel with any future Hamas government, even if it would be used only for solving urgent problems on a daily basis. Hamas will undoubtedly need it very badly. For doing so, the parties have several options:

 First, it can be done by a third party (a state or international organization) accepted by both sides. The United States is a natural choice, unless it sticks to its current policy of no negotiations with Hamas, or if it is perceived by Hamas as too close to Israel. Israel might face pressure to accept the "Quartet" or a European Union state as a mediator between itself and Hamas. Israel might not like it but remember that this method was used with Hizbullah when Israel used German assistance to free kidnapped soldiers. As an alternative, trusted special emissaries can be employed, though that approach has been tried (for example with former CIA chief George Tenet and former World Bank president James Wolfensohn) but has not succeeded. 

A second option is to look for influential Palestinians who are not formally Hamas members but who are trusted by them. Such individuals, possibly from academic, religious or other circles, can help in bridging the divide if they are accepted by both sides.

 If Fatah agrees to participate in the future government, it will provide a third option: Israel could deal with their ministers but not with Hamas directly. Hamas could fill positions of internal ministries with its own members. If Fatah continues to refuse participation in any Hamas government, though, representatives from other political parties or independent parliament members, especially if nominated ministers, can be utilized for that purpose. Some of them, like Hanan Ashrawi and Salam Fayyad, already have had experience negotiating with Israel.

A fourth option is to ignore the Palestinian politicians and to conduct practical discourse with other high-ranking Palestinians not affiliated with Hamas. The use of bilateral intelligence channels might be favored in order to achieve the maximum confidentiality needed under such circumstances. 

A fifth option may be the most appropriate for this unique situation: the Israeli and Palestinian governments can benefit from the help of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). They can be international, Israeli, Palestinian or mixed organizations. Some NGOs have dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for many years and have many advantages. They are deeply familiar with both people's cultures, societies and, most importantly, key individuals. Since they don't represent either party's interests, they are perceived as objective and neutral, and are thus able to gain the trust of political leaders. NGOs represent civil society; they are accepted worldwide and enjoy the sympathy and support of the international community.

 And above all, under conditions of political sensitivity, they can be used as the perfect "cover" for participants to deny responsibility for engaging in politically unpopular discourse. It's no wonder that this option has already been raised in media commentaries and by Western politicians. The French ambassador to Israel, Gerard Araud, said that the EU is considering transferring financial aid to the Palestinians through mediators, such as NGOs.

If nothing dramatic changes here soon, utilizing NGOs to play a significant role between Israelis and Palestinians should be a serious consideration. This won't help in changing basic attitudes on the grassroots level (which is still extremely important), as is usually the mission of NGOs, but it could do much to ease the lives of both peoples.

 

Yossi Ben Ari is the Israeli co-director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information Strategic Affairs Unit. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service.