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Bring Hamas into the political process

It is now clear that Israel delivered a blow to Hamas during its three-week campaign that ended on 17 January, successfully targeting its weapons stores, training facilities and command posts…

by Efraim Halevy

JERUSALEM – Israel has left Hamas to contemplate not only the hostility it has incurred on the part of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other moderate Arab states but also the harsh feeling of betrayal at the hands of its erstwhile supporters—Syria, Iran and the Hizbullah. They all contented themselves with issuing daily exhortations to the fighters to carry on the struggle to the bitter end as they themselves took cover and failed to fire one shot in defence of their clients.

Hamas has entered a period of introspection. It must ask itself whether it is going to continue as cannon fodder for the interests of Damascus or Tehran. And, more important, it must consider whether it can retain the support of the Palestinian masses.

Those of us on the other side should also take this opportunity of a seriously weakened Hamas to reflect on how we might bring it into the political process instead of just confronting it with tanks in the back alleys of Gaza.

To start with, let’s remember the course of events over recent years. Hamas survived two five-year periods of uprising – two Intifadas – the second of which saw a massive Israeli effort to decapitate it and put it out of business. Then, to the surprise of all, including the leaders of Hamas, the administration of George W. Bush inexplicably demanded that Israel and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) permit its participation in the 2006 Palestinian general election—even though it did not recognise the right of Israel to exist.

Though Hamas won an absolute majority in parliament, it was not granted the legitimacy required to govern by those who insisted it participate in the elections in the first place. Even a Saudi-brokered national unity government promoted by King Abdullah was refused recognition by both Israel and the United States.

The United States and Israel have since succeeded in mobilising broad international support for a list of conditions that Hamas must meet in order for it to be accepted as a player in the Palestinian equation. First, it must abide by all agreements reached by the PNA.

Second, it must refrain from all acts of violence. Third, it must recognise Israel’s right to exist. Just last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly reaffirmed that these conditions will remain unchanged.

Yet, recognition of Israel’s right to exist was never imposed on the Arab states or even Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as a pre-condition for status as a legitimate partner in negotiations. Surely this is an ideological, not a political, position that must be reconsidered.

Though it is true that Hamas has steadfastly refused to accept the conditions, especially „the right of Israel to exist“, its leadership has nonetheless been saying over the past year that it will accept the UN-specified 1967 borders between Israel and its Palestinian neighbours as „provisional borders“ for a Palestinian state. Is that not tantamount to a declaration of acceptance of another state – Israel – on the other side of the 1967 divide?

Rather than pressure Hamas to renounce its ideology, why not take them up on their formula of 1967 borders and gradually entice them to participate in the political process as the rational players they surely are? Any move from the arena of ideology to the realm of practical, down-to-earth solutions is surely desirable.

Now is the time to make such a move. In one of the many strange turns of history, it could well be that Hamas can only hope to recoup its losses in Gaza by teaming up again with the PNA led by Mahmoud Abbas.

Although the international community supports the PNA and wishes to strengthen it vis-à-vis Hamas, in reality, Fatah – the traditional movement led by Arafat for nearly 40 years – is rapidly losing ground in public opinion. Its only real chance of revival lies in an effort to re-create a government of national unity with Hamas—an effort specifically approved by the UN Security Council on 7 January.

Egypt is now attempting to bring the weakened factions of the PNA together with Hamas in an act of reconciliation. Success is far from guaranteed since the bitterness between them runs very deep.

Perhaps for now the international community must leave the Palestinians to sort things out among themselves.

* Efraim Halevy is a former head of the Israel’s secret service Mossad and ambassador to the European Union and now heads the Shasha Centre for Strategic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His memoirs are entitled Man in the Shadows. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Global Viewpoint. Source: Gulf News, 8 February 2009, www.gulfnews.com. Copyright permission is granted for publication.