The advent of a Palestinian unity government once again clouds the issue of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and contacts. In reality, in considering the potential role of Hamas in preventing negotiations there are two categories of such talks to be discussed. According to the Oslo accords, any and all peace talks or even conflict-management negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians must involve the Palestinian Liberation Organization, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, and not the Palestinian Authority in which Hamas has now welcomed Fatah as a partner.
In this regard, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been free to negotiate with Abbas over the past year and will continue to be able to negotiate without any direct Hamas-related constraints for the foreseeable future – or at least until Hamas becomes part of the PLO. It is unclear why Olmert declared that the advent of the new government somehow reduced the potential scope of his talks with Abbas, when previously the government was composed only of Hamas. Logically, the fact that Abbas, as the president of Palestine, now oversees a government in which Fatah has a stake in a power-sharing arrangement should make him more attractive to Israel as a negotiating partner. After all Abbas, generally considered weak and ineffective but also a man of integrity, could now conceivably be able to “deliver a little more effectively than previously, when Hamas constituted the entire government. Then too, Abbas retains control over the National Security Council and has appointed Mohammad Dahlan as his national security adviser. This presents Israel with an attractive non-PA “address for its security concerns. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of the agreement that produced this government ostensibly reflects an enhanced degree of Saudi influence over it – an additional factor militating in favor of exploring with Abbas the prospects for a viable political process. So discussion of the possibility of negotiations with Hamas over a political settlement, which would almost certainly focus on the latter’s proposals for a long-term truce, is theoretical until such time (and it may come within a year or two) as Hamas assumes the presidency of Palestine and the leadership of the PLO. There remains, then, the question of “dealing (rather than negotiating) with the unity government now that it comprises Fatah as well as Hamas. Israel has indicated it will refuse all contact, even with such respected figures and veteran negotiating partners as Finance Minister Salam Fayyad and Foreign Minister Ziad Abu Amr. After all, this new government has accepted none of Israel’s and the Quartet’s three conditions.
Indeed, the new government’s guidelines endorse armed struggle or resistance as a “legitimate right of the Palestinian people, ostensibly rejecting even the most easily negotiated of the three conditions: abandoning violence. Needless to say, the Olmert government will not turn over tax revenues to Fayyad (although it has already begun to do so with Abbas and could now continue in this path). In contrast, the international community, led by the Europeans and the United Nations, already appears to have rationalized the ethical and moral conflicts involved here and to have decided in favor of renewing contacts, at least with the Fatah ministers and possibly with those from Hamas as well. Some international financial support will now enter Palestinian coffers directly through Fayyad’s ministry. The position of the United States is not yet clear, but last Tuesday Fayyad met with the US consul general in Jerusalem, Jacob Walles. This only underlined how Fayyad’s rise to prominence under the late president, Yasser Arafat, reflected a virtual American diktat. Indeed, it is equally hard to contemplate Olmert himself holding for long to his refusal to talk to the likes of Fayyad and Abu Amr. First, because Israel is liable to find itself isolated on this issue and subject to American pressure to show some flexibility. Second, because Israel understands that the new unity government is the child of much-appreciated Saudi involvement. As such, it is linked to the Arab peace plan that Israelis have begun to take seriously, and by extension to the aspiration, however tenuous and divorced from inter-Arab realities, to make common cause with the moderate Sunni Arab states against Iran and its allies.
Third, because a much-desired prisoner exchange may require closer contacts. And fourth, because Olmert’s days as prime minister are almost certainly numbered and his successor will be free to ignore the taboos of yesterday and start with a clean slate. The Saudis have pointed out that the new Palestinian government’s guidelines also pledge to “work to maintain the [pause in violence] and extend it. As the Saudis understand the Mecca agreement that produced this government, they are in the process of successfully drawing Hamas into a commitment to a two-state solution and will make sure Hamas does indeed maintain and expand the ceasefire. In any case, Olmert or his successor would be well advised to reevaluate the three conditions imposed for recognition of the Palestinian government, which were neither pragmatic nor historically justified to begin with. Israel doesn’t need Hamas’ recognition to begin talking with it; close adherence to previous agreements, to which qualified lip service is paid in the Mecca agreement and the new government’s guidelines, has not been a characteristic of Abbas’ administration or that of Arafat.
If the ceasefire can be maintained and expanded – a concept that must include cessation of smuggling of ordnance into Gaza – and a prisoner exchange implemented, this should facilitate contacts with Hamas. If the new Palestinian government cannot satisfy this single condition – and the identity and lack of real authority of the new minister responsible for internal security is not conducive to confidence in this regard – then in any case the Israeli armed forces are liable to end up temporarily reoccupying and disarming parts of Gaza in order to prevent a Lebanon-like situation. Such a development would in all likelihood render useless all attempts at negotiation. Yossi Alpherwas director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and an adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons.org, an online newsletter dealing with Israeli-Palestinian issues.