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A portrait of Hamas founder and spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin is seen on a wheelchair at his house in Gaza City, Monday, May 30, 2011. Hamas and the Yassin's family opened his home to visitors, turning the location into a memorial site. Yassin was killed in an Israeli airstrike in 2004. (Hatem Moussa/AP)
A portrait of Hamas founder and spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin is seen on a wheelchair at his house in Gaza City, Monday, May 30, 2011. Hamas and the Yassin's family opened his home to visitors, turning the location into a memorial site. Yassin was killed in an Israeli airstrike in 2004. (Hatem Moussa/AP)

Globe Editorial

Israel can talk, without negotiating, with Hamas Add to ...

Israel cannot and must not talk to Hamas, yet it probably will and indeed does so - because there are different kinds of talking, and different things to talk about.

The state of Israel and the Palestinian Authority have to deal with each other on numerous matters, because of the extremely complex status of the West Bank, where power overlaps; the established nation-state and the ambiguous Palestinian entity are not separated by a wall or a clear line of any other kind. That will not change if Fatah and Hamas succeed in their plan to form a coalition government, as they are trying to do, though relations may become even more fraught than they are now.

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Moreover, Israel and Hamas have been unsuccessfully negotiating for some time - through Egyptian and German intermediaries - about the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured almost five years ago and is well hidden somewhere in Gaza. The idea of an agreement for an exchange of prisoners is accepted by both sides; the actual terms of whom to release and how many are unresolved.

All that is hard enough. But the greatest difficulty would be in wide-ranging, comprehensive negotiations about the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which would have to aim at a two-state solution.

It is some comfort that Israel would not be negotiating with Hamas as such, or, for that matter, Fatah as such, but rather with the Palestinian Authority. But not much. Without a major change of policy - and even a change of heart - the Hamas component of the PA coalition would not be negotiating in good faith for an enduring peace treaty, and could not be trusted to adhere to it without a very clear recognition of Israel's right to exist.

Khaled Meshaal, who as chairman of Hamas's political bureau is its principal leader, has made statements that envisage a "sovereign Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip," which does imply a willingness to accept less than the whole territory that was subject to the League of Nations mandate for Palestine - for the time being, that is. In the same breath, he said Hamas would not give up "a single inch of land," strongly suggesting that he is just prepared to wait a while for what is now the land of the state of Israel. Other members of Hamas have spoken in similar terms.

Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, observes a version of Islamic law that provides for long-term truces with non-Muslim states. But truces, short or long, or a series of truces, cannot be satisfactory to Israel, or indeed to the international community, which has a broader interest in peace. Moreover, the Hamas Covenant, the party's founding document, claims all of the land in dispute as a specially consecrated territory - different, that is, from formerly Muslim-ruled territories such as Hungary and Spain.

The Hamas Covenant is no ordinary political platform. It is full of poetic quotations from the Koran and the reported sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, and its conspiracy theories go beyond the usual suspects - such as the Masons - to include the Rotary Club and the Lions as undercover Zionist operations. This is not the sort of document that could be easily amended at a party convention. Its whole spirit is combative, angry and disturbing.

Unfortunately, the Netanyahu government has dug itself into the status quo, not having reached out to the PA while Fatah was in charge. To all appearances, the rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas is popular among the Palestinians; there is relief at something like the end of a civil war. The agreement will not be unwound to accommodate Israel or the United States.

Under the Fatah-Hamas accord, a transitional cabinet of "technocrats" - not card-carrying members of either Fatah or Hamas - is to take over the PA pending new elections. Consequently, there is little prospect for any authoritative negotiations for a year or so.

But so much is going on in the Arab world that it would be imprudent for Israel to simply stand aside unresponsively, appearing to take advantage of instability and showing no consciousness of the good potential of democracy in Arab countries. In a sense, there is no longer a status quo to preserve.

The only way forward, for the time being, is to engage in informal, exploratory conversations, perhaps "below the radar." A comparable process resulted in the Oslo Accords in 1992 and 1993 - which is not to say that Hamas now is simply equivalent to the Palestine Liberation Organization then. Likewise, communications similar to the Geneva Initiative of 2003 which resulted in the entirely hypothetical and unauthorized "Geneva Accord" - independent of any government - could be constructive in these circumstances.

Israel cannot yet negotiate with Hamas. But stony silence is not an option either. If they can talk about Gilad Shalit, they can put out some tentative feelers to each other on broader themes, too.

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