Israel and Hamas: A new equation for Mid-East peace?

Israeli and Pales­tin­ian hard­lin­ers rather than mod­er­ates are serv­ing each other’s pur­pose in the Mid­dle East con­flict. That is the under­ly­ing dynam­ic of the polit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions of both Israel and Hamas in the recent lop-sided swap of an Israeli sol­dier for over a thou­sand Pales­tin­ian pris­on­ers.


THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN peace process remains frozen with lit­tle, if any, prospect of it gain­ing momen­tum. Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Abbas’ effort to achieve Unit­ed Nations recog­ni­tion of Pales­tin­ian state­hood in a bid to break the log­jam is mired in diplo­mat­ic red tape and like­ly to be foiled by a Unit­ed States veto if it comes up for a vote in the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil.

True to form, hard­lin­ers on both sides of the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian divide are find­ing com­mon ground where mod­er­ates are grasp­ing for straws. In doing so, they are reaf­firm­ing a long-stand­ing fact of life of the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian equa­tion: hard­lin­ers can serve each other’s needs to mutu­al ben­e­fit with­out mak­ing the kind of wrench­ing con­ces­sions that thwart the ambi­tions of peace­mak­ers and mod­er­ates on both sides.

The pris­on­er swap in which Israel bought free­dom for now Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit after five years in Pales­tin­ian cap­tiv­i­ty in exchange for the release of 1,027 pris­on­ers — many of whom were respon­si­ble for dead­ly attacks on Israelis — is the lat­est exam­ple of sworn ene­mies find­ing it eas­i­er to do busi­ness than those who advo­cate com­pro­mise and liv­ing in peace and har­mo­ny side by side.

No peace works for all

Under­ly­ing, the swap is a belief on the part of Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Netanyahu and Hamas that there is no real­is­tic chance for an agree­ment on peace terms that would be accept­able to both Pales­tini­ans and Israelis. Giv­en the nature of his coali­tion gov­ern­ment, Netanyahu has so far been unwill­ing or unable to give Abbas the bare min­i­mum he would need to push for­ward with peace with­out at least the tac­it back­ing of Hamas.

While Netanyahu offi­cial­ly refus­es to nego­ti­ate with Hamas, for its part, Hamas refus­es Israeli con­di­tions for its inclu­sion in a peace process. These are that it recog­nis­es Israel’s right to exist, aban­dons its armed strug­gle and accepts past Israeli-Pales­tin­ian agree­ments. If any­thing, the fact that it has achieved a tan­gi­ble vic­to­ry with the release of pris­on­ers belong­ing to both Hamas as well as Abbas’ Fatah move­ment has rein­forced the Islamist movement’s con­vic­tion that its hard line is pay­ing off.

Netanyahu has strength­ened Hamas in its con­vic­tion not only by exclud­ing Abbas from the pris­on­er swap. He has also done so by under­min­ing the Pales­tin­ian pres­i­dent with his deci­sion to build a new Jew­ish set­tle­ment on the south­ern edge of Jerusalem and grant­i­ng legal sta­tus to set­tle­ments estab­lished with­out his government’s approval. Abbas has made an Israeli freeze on set­tle­ments his core pre-con­di­tion for revival of peace talks with the Israelis, to no avail.

Tem­po­rary arrange­ments suit all but Abbas

Unlike Abbas, Netanyahu has made his most hard­line crit­ics part of his coali­tion. Netanyahu and Israel’s right-wing more­over agree on fun­da­men­tals: a rejec­tion of an Israeli return to the bor­ders pri­or to the 1967 con­quest of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and a per­cep­tion of a nuclear-armed Iran as the fore­most threat to the exis­tence of the Jew­ish state. Hamas rather than Abbas offers Netanyahu the space to build Israeli pol­i­cy on those two prin­ci­ples. Hamas’ refusal to meet Israeli con­di­tions for peace nego­ti­a­tions proves the Israeli prime minister’s asser­tion that Israel has no Pales­tin­ian part­ner with which it can do busi­ness.

At the same time, Hamas has proven that it can and will make tem­po­rary arrange­ments with Israel like the pris­on­er swap or a cease­fire that safe­guards Israeli towns from Pales­tin­ian rock­et attacks. Hamas has more­over, con­tributed its bit to weak­en­ing Abbas by effec­tive­ly thwart­ing the Pales­tin­ian leader’s efforts at rec­on­cil­i­a­tion so that Pales­tini­ans can con­front Israel with a uni­fied front.

The pos­si­bil­i­ty of Hamas’ exter­nal wing mov­ing its head­quar­ters from Syr­ia, Iran’s clos­est ally in the Arab world, to post-Mubarak Egypt, which facil­i­tat­ed the pris­on­er swap, fur­ther serves Netanyahu’s pur­pose of clear­ing the deck for pos­si­ble pre-emp­tive mil­i­tary action against Iran. Lin­ger­ing in the back­ground is uncer­tain­ty of what Israel’s imme­di­ate neigh­bour­hood may look like. Syr­i­an pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad is bat­tling for his sur­vival with no sign of the eight months of mass anti-gov­ern­ment protests sub­sid­ing despite a bru­tal crack­down. Jordan’s King Abdul­lah has so far been able to con­tain demands for polit­i­cal reform and greater eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty.

Israeli mil­i­tary: the jok­er in the pack

Iron­i­cal­ly, Israel’s mil­i­tary and for­mer senior Israeli mil­i­tary com­man­ders con­sti­tute the great­est threat to Netanyahu’s pol­i­cy designs and may offer Hamas its best chance yet of becom­ing a play­er in peace talks with Israel as well as the dom­i­nant force in Pales­tin­ian pol­i­tics. While Israel’s mil­i­tary appears split on the prospect of a pre-emp­tive strike against Iran, at least half of the retired lead­ers of Israel’s mil­i­tary and intel­li­gence ser­vices have pub­licly reject­ed Netanyahu’s strate­gic think­ing.

Per­haps, most vocal among them is Meir Dagan, a for­mer head of Mossad, who has not only crit­i­cised Netanyahu’s hard line toward Iran but also called for Israeli accep­tance of a nine-year old Sau­di peace plan endorsed by all Arab states. That peace plan offers Israel full diplo­mat­ic rela­tions in exchange for a com­plete with­draw­al from Pales­tin­ian lands occu­pied in 1967.

No doubt Dagan, Hamas’ neme­sis who is cred­it­ed with the death of hun­dreds of its oper­a­tives, has polit­i­cal ambi­tions as well as the mil­i­tary cre­den­tials that Netanyahu lacks. His will­ing­ness to enter­tain the Sau­di pro­pos­al would open the door to Hamas to take its seat at the table. That could well lead to a new chap­ter in Israeli-Pales­tin­ian rela­tions.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.