Talking with Hamas
Prime Minister Sharon expressed the hope that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Israel would help him stem the growing political profile of Hamas. Israel and the United States have even raised the possibility of asking the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to ban Hamas from running in the parliamentary elections. If this were to happen, Hamas would riposte by using any means it has at its disposal.
An Israeli source was quoted as saying that Abbas's postponement of the election, originally scheduled for July 17, was related to Israel's reservations about the participation of "a racist party that calls for the annihilation of the Jews."
In its bid to become a key political player, Hamas has demonstrated the openness to engage in discussion with whoever is willing to sit at the same table with them. A European Union official confirmed the bloc has opened contacts with Hamas, but has reached no collective decision on whether to change its policy toward the blacklisted group.
The discussion and the cooperation were "limited to the extent to which it's necessary for carrying out work on the ground" on projects in Palestinian areas. Nonetheless, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev sharply criticized any contacts between Hamas and the EU declaring: "We think the international community should be engaging the moderates in Palestinian society. We would be critical of a policy that could be perceived as appeasing the extremists."
Mushir al-Masri, Hamas spokesman in the Gaza strip said that the European officials spoke of the need for Hamas to disarm, but Hamas responded by saying Israel's occupation would have to end first. "In all the meetings ... we affirmed that ending the role of Hamas's armed wing is linked to the end of the Zionist occupation of the Palestinian lands," al Masri said.
Can the US and Israel ignore the voice of Hamas? Would it be wise to do so? While it is true that Hamas's charter still supports the elimination of Israel, so did Egypt some time ago. Refusing to engage with Hamas means that its large constituency is isolated from any decision making. This may very likely lead to more extremism and ongoing fights between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Refusing to sit down with Hamas will be seen as an expression of hypocrisy and duplicity to condemn the inclusion of Hamas into the Palestinian political process while saying nothing or ignoring the inclusion of Jewish extremist groups in successive Israeli governments.
If included in the political process, Hamas would share the responsibility along with the Palestinian Authority for establishing a base for an independent Palestinian state. If talks were to be held with Israel as the PLO did in their early days of official communication, this could be considered to be a de facto recognition. If they are talking, they will halt acts of violence. This must be clearly understood by Hamas and here it is the major role of the EU to emphasize this aspect.
What also must be understood is that Israel must respond positively and commit to cease all further development and expansion of settlements in the West Bank. It is also vital to add that Israel needs to talk to the elected leadership of the Palestinian people, i.e. Mahmoud Abbas and his team. If Hamas agrees to act as part of Mahmoud Abbas's team or at least in a partnership with the Palestinian Authority, then they would rightfully be taken into consideration.
The following is a possible formula to get negotiations started between the Hamas leadership, Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government:
1. Hamas agrees to a total cessation of all acts of violence, including the restraint of responding to Israel's "retaliation" policy
2. Israel agrees that the Gaza disengagement is only the first step in relinquishing the occupied territories and agrees to immediately cease all settlement support and activity
3. Hamas agrees, after the implementation of the above two steps, to recognize Israel within mutually agreed upon borders
4. All parties agree that all topics will be open for discussion, including Jerusalem, the refugee situation and final borders
If Israel can be convinced that it should freeze the building of settlements and declare the willingness to return to the 1967 borders with the appropriate security arrangements, Hamas would have no choice but to moderate its position. Israel may knowingly feed Palestinian militancy by remaining intransigent and elusive about its future plans. In this situation, Palestinians have no other choice but to conclude Israel's intent on holding on to large parts of the West Bank. This is the real fuel for militant resistance.
The question is: Would Hamas change its view if Israel were to take all or most of the abovementioned steps? Hamas has declared for years that the whole of Israel is occupied territory and they want it destroyed. They never have hidden this view from the public and that may be one of the reasons why they are strongly supported by the Palestinians. Israel's withdrawal to the 1967 borders may not be the end of the conflict in Hamas's eyes, but only its first important victory against Israel.
In this round all parties share responsibility: Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are responsible for handling the negotiations in order to end the state of terror and violence against each other. On the other hand, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas together with other factions should find solutions to end the territories' state of lawlessness.
Much depends on how the EU and the US will respond to Hamas's attempt to gain political legitimacy and to Israel's call to ban Hamas from any political role within the territories. However, if peace is the ultimate goal, then both sides should start acting accordingly.