Sep 20th 2010

Hamas must play a role in the two-state solution

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

The negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority can potentially succeed, but such a success cannot be sustained unless Hamas is brought into the political process in some capacity. Concessions made or breakthroughs achieved must represent the majority of the electorates, as there can be no lasting peaceful solution without recreating a unified Palestinian polity in the West Bank and Gaza. The Arab states should therefore heed President Obama's call to meaningfully contribute to the peace process by pressing Hamas to renounce violence and accept the principles of the Arab Peace Initiative as a common frame of reference for advancing Palestinian unity and a comprehensive resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Israel must accept that Hamas is a reality, which it cannot simply wish away. Hamas' participation is essential, not only because it is in control of Gaza, but also because it represents a disciplined grassroots movement with a substantial social, political and security apparatus. To be sure, Hamas is a radical militant organization, yet it wields too much influence over its followers - and over the Gaza Strip - to be discounted. While Israel will continue to defend its citizens, Hamas - as an ideology - cannot be removed completely by military force, and ignoring Hamas has not been a successful strategy to marginalize it. Thus far, Hamas' political participation has been conditional upon its acceptance of the Quartet's three conditions: recognize Israel, renounce terrorism and accept prior Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Hamas' leadership has refused to do so and is unlikely to comply any time soon, perhaps with the exception of adhering to a non-violent atmosphere.

The renewed peace talks offer a new chance to press Hamas to forsake violence and become part of the political process. Notwithstanding Hamas' recent attacks on Israelis in the West Bank coinciding with the launch of direct talks, the group has largely refrained from such violence - and rocket fire from the Gaza Strip - since the conclusion of Israel's Operation Cast Lead in January of 2009. That is because Hamas recognizes that escalating violent terror acts against Israelis would be self-destructive. Israel would not hesitate to respond militarily to an escalation of violence by decapitating Hamas' leadership. In this sense, Hamas is already tacitly acknowledging that violence is ineffective, and will only lead to more destruction. Meanwhile, the social, security and economic progress achieved in the West Bank offers a glaring contrast to the continuing despondency in Gaza, presenting a serious challenge to Hamas. Hamas is therefore in dire need of a new strategy to deliver goods and services to their constituents. Just as Israel can no longer ignore the reality of Hamas, Hamas must accept the reality and the security of Israel as a prerequisite to its own political survival.

At this stage, the Quartet's conditions on Hamas to enter the political process should be replaced by an insistence that Hamas explicitly renounce violence and accept the Arab Peace Initiative. Two of the three Quartet conditions are unrealistic. Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel in advance of any agreement is consistent with the position of the Arab states (besides Egypt and Jordan). Israel does not and should not need Hamas' recognition, nor should it be required to recognize Hamas or its ideologies. Furthermore, Hamas will not explicitly accept past agreements, as doing so would also amount to recognition of Israel. However, by participating in past elections, Hamas has already recognized the governance structure of the Palestinian Authority - a body created following an agreement with Israel - as legitimate. Hamas should be viewed as a political party - if its leadership wants to be a part of the political process they can do so as long as they do not advocate violence. In this regard, neither the Quartet nor Israel should elevate Hamas' status by treating it as an independent state. However, the third Quartet condition, Hamas' forsaking of violence, should be an absolute requirement for it to enter any political process. Doing so could pave the way for both Palestinian unity and Hamas' participation, albeit indirectly, in negotiations with Israel.

Meanwhile, the Arab states - particularly Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria - should now pressure Hamas to accept the Initiative as a face saving way of entering the political process that could be acceptable to Israel, the Arab states and the Quartet. These three Arab states have particular interest in the Israeli-Palestinian talks and must now support efforts that could bring about a Palestinian state. Egypt shares a border with the Gaza Strip and has experience addressing Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, mediating the dispute between Fatah and Hamas, and working with Israel. It has a vested interest in Hamas' moderation and calm along its border. Saudi Arabia - as the initiator of the Arab Peace Initiative - now must show that it is capable of the leadership necessary to advance it. As the custodian of the Islamic holy sites, Saudi Arabia can be uniquely influential in addressing Hamas' Islamic ideology. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has the power of the purse and it can offer substantial financial aid as a further inducement for Hamas to sign on to the Peace Initiative. Finally, by advocating Hamas' acceptance of the Initiative, Syria - as host to Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Damascus and support of Hamas as well as a signatory to the Arab Initiative-could demonstrate that it is determined to improve its relations with the United States. In this regard, the statement following the recent meeting between King Abdullah of Jordan and Syrian President Basher Assad in support of the Arab Peace Initiative is a welcome sign.

The Arab Peace Initiative is not an all or nothing deal. The general framework of the document offers a common frame of reference to which all parties to the conflict could relate as a basis for negotiations toward a secure and durable peace. Critics may argue that just as Hamas has not accepted the Quartet's conditions, it would similarly reject the Arab Peace Initiative. It should be noted that on more than one occasion, Hamas leaders have suggested that they could accept a formula of a cessation of hostilities for a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders. For example, Hamas' Khaled Meshal told the New York Times in May 2009 that, "We are with a state on the 1967 borders, based on a long-term truce. This includes East Jerusalem, the dismantling of settlements and the right of return of the Palestinian refugees." Although such statements contain problematic elements for Israel - especially the right of return of refugees - the comments do suggest that Hamas recognizes the benefits of principles of the Initiative. Others may question whether the Arab states would have any meaningful influence on Hamas, since its principal supporter - Iran - is dedicated to obstructing the political process. However, the relationship between Sunni Hamas and Shiite Iran is one of convenience and necessity, not ideology. Hamas' joining the Arab states' endorsement of the Arab Peace Initiative would serve to bring Hamas into a more suitable alliance with its Sunni Arab brethren.

The Arab Peace Initiative is the only peace plan that offers a common denominator, with elements acceptable to all parties to the conflict including Hamas and Israel. The United States must use its leverage to influence Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria to take the lead in advocating the Initiative as a way forward for Hamas to become part of the political process, and in doing so advance the prospects of the recently launched peace talks.

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