For Israel and Hamas, a Case for Accommodation

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By Robert Malley and Aaron David Miller
Monday, May 15, 2006

The formation of new governments in Palestine and Israel has produced the oddest of marriages -- one between mortal enemies who are also dependent on one another and who have more in common these days than either would care to admit. Whether this coincidence of interests overcomes their divergence in beliefs depends on how pragmatic they are prepared to be and on how others, particularly the United States, react.

Hamas, which heads the Palestinian Authority, is sworn to Israel's destruction, its charter replete with anti-Semitism, its outlook tethered to the use of violence. For this Israeli government -- or any other, for that matter -- the Islamist movement represents an existential threat, the Palestinian Authority has become the equivalent of a terrorist entity and the ultimate goal remains Hamas's demise.

Yet beneath their unyielding rhetoric lie ironic parallels. Neither side has any interest in talking to the other, and neither at this point believes in a comprehensive settlement. Yet both have immediate agendas that, while inherently unilateral in nature, are interconnected and are best served by avoiding both a return to the battlefield and a resumption of bilateral negotiations.

Hamas's priority today is to ensure that its government survives, which means ensuring that it delivers. It needs the space and time to restore law and order, curb corruption, meet basic economic needs and devise some way of paying its civil servants when most of the world balks at funding its budget. However inward-looking its program, Hamas knows that without at least implicit Israeli acquiescence it can achieve none of the above. Israeli military operations would undercut any attempt to achieve calm; continued restrictions on Palestinian movement and trade would spoil any prospect of economic recovery; and prolonged Israeli withholding of Palestinian tax revenue would foil any hope of budgetary solvency.

Israel's priority today is to carry out its so-called convergence plan, under which it would withdraw from a large number of West Bank settlements on the east side of the separation barrier while strengthening its hold on the large settlement blocs on the west side. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert needs the space and time to manage his complicated domestic politics and carry out the relocation of tens of thousands of settlers at huge financial cost. This plan can hardly succeed on its own. Israel needs financial support and, most important, a relatively calm environment if public opinion and the political class are to accept an ambitious withdrawal that, under Palestinian fire, they are more than likely to oppose.

Israel can frustrate the Islamists' project, but it needs their cooperation if its own plan is to succeed. The Islamists can hinder Olmert's efforts to achieve his objectives, but they require his complicity if their own ambitions are to be realized. And just as Hamas provides a perfect justification for Israel's argument that since there is no Palestinian partner, unilateralism is the only option, so does Israel's unilateral withdrawal offer validation for Hamas's argument that since there are no returns from negotiations, steadfastness is the only approach that delivers.

Can these strange bedfellows find an acceptable accommodation? That depends on whether they and others are prepared to recognize certain realities, however uncomfortable these might be.

First, Hamas will not accept the three conditions put forward by the international community (recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, acceptance of past agreements), certainly not now and certainly not under threat. Instead, these should be redefined in terms that are both meaningful and realistic: Is the government solidifying the cease-fire and restoring law and order? Is it dealing pragmatically with Israel on issues of mutual concern? Has it endorsed the Arab League's Beirut resolution, which, by calling for normalization of relations with Israel once a peace agreement has been reached, implicitly entails recognition? These are benchmarks that most Palestinians would accept -- and that most Palestinians would blame Hamas for rejecting.

Second, U.S. efforts to starve the Palestinian government of funds may be a principled position, but they are certainly not a workable policy. The result would be humanitarian catastrophe, political chaos and domestic mayhem among Palestinians -- as well as resumption of full-scale violence. Instead (and parallel to Hamas's meeting the new benchmarks, particularly cessation of violence), the United States, without altering its own practice, should allow donor countries to engage with the Palestinian government and pay its employees through an international trust fund.

Third, Israeli unilateralism, for all its shortfalls, is at present the only realistic way forward. Ensuring that it succeeds means providing Olmert with financial and diplomatic support for his planned withdrawal. But it also means setting forth unambiguous red lines to preserve the only option for resolving the conflict: a negotiated two-state solution. The United States should not recognize unilaterally declared permanent borders nor acquiesce in any action in Jerusalem that prejudges the city's future. In fact, at the appropriate time, it should lay out a clear vision of a final settlement.

While Hamas's and Israel's long-term designs remain at loggerheads, their immediate agendas dovetail. As a result, a combination of economic recovery and restoration of law and order for the Palestinians, West Bank withdrawals for Israel, and an informal truce for both appears within reach. For now, that is about as much as anyone could reasonably hope for.

Robert Malley, former special assistant to President Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs, is Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group. Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East negotiator, is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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