How to Reach a Political Agreement Before the Next War
The November 21 cease-fire that ended the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas left key issues unresolved. Even if calm has been temporarily restored to the area, history suggests that it is unlikely to last. Over the past decade, the absence of violence has not meant peace but merely a temporary lull until the next outburst. Long after any given cease-fire, Israelis and Palestinians do not forget the injustices and killings that incited hostilities in the first place. Absent a political solution that addresses each side’s core grievances, a relapse into violence is inevitable.
If Israel and the international community wish to break this pattern, they need to reconsider their strategic approach to Hamas. Historically, Israel has failed to take advantage of the sporadic appearance of potential interlocutors within Hamas, preferring instead to rely on temporary cease-fires coupled with extrajudicial assassinations. „Mowing the lawn” – the metaphor that a number of Israeli officials have used to describe what they see as a necessary chore of intermittently destroying Hamas’ infrastructure in Gaza – is an unsustainable solution that only perpetuates the cycle of violence. The international community’s boycott of Hamas, upheld on the grounds that it is a terrorist organization committed to Israel’s destruction, has failed. A new approach is desperately needed.
Hamas is not some marginal resistance organization; it is a powerful political movement that has integrated itself into the Palestinian national fabric. Born out of the social services network of the Muslim Brotherhood, which catered to local needs in the West Bank and Gaza for decades, Hamas garners support from many Palestinians, who believe that the movement is justly fighting for their rights against a brutal occupation. As a crucial player in the Palestinian nationalist movement, it commands legitimacy domestically and among key allies abroad, whether or not the United States, Europe, Israel, or even the Palestinian Authority try to wish it away.
Such a force cannot be beaten into submission by military measures, such as last month’s assassination of Ahmed Jabari, Hamas’ military chief, or the killing of the organization’s top leaders in 2004. In 2006, Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections on a platform that sought to legitimize the very resistance that Israel hopes to destroy. Since then, Israel has tried everything from targeted assassinations and arresting elected Hamas parliamentarians to collective sieges on the population of the Gaza Strip – none of which has succeeded in eliminating the group. If anything, such tactics only strengthen Hamas’ ideological commitment to resistance and substantiate its claims that violence is the proper response to the conflict.
The fact of the matter is that Hamas represents a significant proportion of the Palestinian public. Israel’s use of overwhelming force may decimate Hamas’ military infrastructure, at terrible cost to civilians in Gaza, but it cannot undermine the group’s core message. The only viable alternative, then, is for Hamas to be recognized as a central player alongside the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
To see how this might work, it is necessary to understand Hamas’ stance toward negotiations. Hamas is a grassroots organization that derives its legitimacy directly from the people it seeks to represent. Given that Hamas was elected on a platform of safeguarding the right to resist Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and protecting Palestinian interests, any deviation from these goals will discredit it.
As Hamas evolved from a marginal resistance movement to the governing body of the Gaza Strip, it attempted to circumvent ideological constraints by signaling its willingness to accept pragmatic solutions. For example, it continued to refuse to explicitly recognize Israel’s right to exist while indicating that it would accept the creation of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. In doing so, Hamas withheld its acknowledgment of Israel’s legitimacy while conceding the country’s de facto reality.
In January 2007, on the heels of Hamas’ electoral victory, the organization’s leader, Khaled Meshal, told Reuters:
We in Hamas are with the general Palestinian and Arab position and we are with the consensus of the necessity of establishing a Palestinian state on the June 4  borders, including (East) Jerusalem, the right of return and the withdrawal of Israel to these borders.
The problem is not that there is an entity called Israel. The problem is that the Palestinian state is non-existent. There is a reality that Israel exists on Palestinian territory. The problem is that the Palestinian state does not exist. My concern as a Palestinian is to found this state. International relations are not based just on recognition.
We as Hamas and as Palestinians do not talk about recognizing Israel or accepting it as a reality. As a Palestinian today I speak of a Palestinian and Arab demand for a state on 1967 borders. It is true that in reality there will be an entity or a state called Israel on the rest of Palestinian land. This is reality but I don’t deal with it from the point of view of recognizing or admitting it. It is a fact that was the result of historical factors.
Meshal’s statement fell short of the full recognition of Israel’s legitimacy that was demanded by the Quartet (the body representing the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia). The result was these powers’ utter refusal to negotiate with Hamas or to encourage Israel to do so – a stance that helped bring about the civil war between Fatah and Hamas and the current divide between Gaza and the Fatah-governed West Bank.
The divergence between the Quartet’s conditions and Hamas’ position may be vast in terms of ideology and semantics, but such a gap does not preclude cooperation on practical issues. The leaders of Hamas are the first to admit this: Osama Hamdan, its representative in Beirut, attempted to deal with the Quartet’s conditions following Hamas’ victory by explaining that the refusal to recognize Israel is simply a „question of vocabulary.”
Refusing to recognize Israel’s right to exist is a widely held position among Arabs and Palestinians, whether openly asserted or not. Some Palestinian factions and leaders can – and do – pander to the international community by semantically conceding Israel’s legitimacy, but such positions remain unpopular among the masses. For most Palestinians, Israel’s creation represents the moment of their disenfranchisement – the nakba (catastrophe) of 1948. So today, Israel is simply seen as the current manifestation of a historic injustice, not as a legitimate state. Hamas understands this perfectly. If it were to accept the conditions demanded of it by the Quartet and Israel, Hamas would jeopardize its popular support. (Fatah and the PA have set exactly such a precedent.)
Given that Hamas has shown a willingness to adopt practical solutions, regional and international powers should focus on reaching pragmatic agreements rather than attempting to bridge ideological gaps. By engaging with Hamas instead of boycotting it, the international community could test the organization’s limits on a number of core issues that must shape any final agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, including the future borders of the Palestinian state.
Hamas is a Palestinian resistance movement, and so it will always seek to advance Palestinian self-determination and end the occupation. This struggle is not limited to the control of Gaza’s borders but rather to the trajectory of Palestinian nationalism more broadly. Given that stance, engagement with Hamas can succeed only within a wider framework that seeks an end to the conflict in a just manner.
For starters, finding a practical political solution with Hamas will require Israel and the international community to encourage the reconciliation of Hamas and Fatah. Only a government that includes both factions could assure Israel that any agreement it reached with the Palestinians would last. For this to succeed, Israel and the Quartet need to lift their threat of boycotting any Palestinian government that includes Hamas. In the past, Hamas has shown significant flexibility on the question of its role within a unified Palestinian government. In 2007, its elected legislative council went so far as to suggest that the party might be willing to concede the post of prime minister if the Quartet lifted its boycott and engaged with the unity government. Since then, several rounds of reconciliation efforts have failed, but wider changes in the Arab world have revived the possibility that they could succeed.
Once such a government forms, negotiations with Israel could proceed in good faith. Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority have all at some point displayed a readiness to countenance the creation of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, so that could be a viable starting point for negotiations. Given changes on the ground, it very well may be that other alternative frameworks are pursued instead. In any case, such talks would not and could not immediately address the historic grievances on either side – Israel’s demand to be fully recognized and the Palestinian demand for the right of return being among the most prominent. Nonetheless, they could begin to address the nonideological core issues of contention in the conflict, such as the status of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, the presence of Jewish settlers on the West Bank, and Gaza’s borders.
Negotiations on practicalities such as these would serve as confidence-building measures and enhance the Palestinians’ quality of life, economic development, and long-term security. Over time, these improvements would undermine Hamas’ justification for violent resistance, underscoring that practical arrangements are often the necessary precursors to broader political settlements.
In the context of any honest quest for peace, the international community and Israel’s opinions about Hamas’ ideology and tactics are irrelevant. Hamas is a key stakeholder in the conflict, with grievances that represent the views of many Palestinians, and there can be no long-term solution without its involvement. If Israel and the international community keep refusing to engage Hamas, last month’s cease-fire will ultimately prove a mere stopgap, paving the way for the next round of violence.