Bringing the Negotiating Table to Hamas

It’s hard not to read this Army War College monograph by Sherifa Zuhur on the broader Osrael-Hamas conflict (i.e., written in December before the recent round of escalation) without feeling a tragic sense of missed opportunity about the past two years. For me that begins with the American and Israeli decision to exacerbate the Fatah-Hamas split following the latter’s 2006 electoral victory, and to move ahead with a separate Israel-PA peace track. I also think that Israel could have taken a more courageous position with regard to building on the truce that just expired.

I recognize that I write that from the comfort of a Paris apartment, beyond missile range from Gaza. But if a stable modus vivendi is to be found between Israelis and Palestinians, it will require, among other things, a magnanimous peace on the part of Israel. Indeed, what Israel is losing, and has been for the past ten years, isn’t the war between Israelis and Palestinians, which effectively ended years ago, but the peace. That means setting aside the logic of both hermetic seals (i.e., unilateral withdrawal) and iron fists (i.e., forward deterrence) as a means of achieving an unattainable goal of complete security.

There are certainly security benefits to be gained for Israel from a devastating military operation in Gaza, despite the heavy costs that accompany one. The fact that Hezbollah has not dared to open a northern front in support of Hamas shows that, despite the widely acknowledged failure of the 2006 Lebanon War, it did have some deterrent impact.

But a strategic objective that includes dealing some sort of definitive deathblow to Hamas ignores both the degree to which Hamas has become integrated into the social fabric of Gaza through its social services operations, and the degree to which Palestinian resistance has become integrated into the political fabric of Hamas for lack of any other viable alternative.

The Israeli army might eradicate what we know as Hamas (the men, the weapons, the command and control infrastructure), but that will only drive those Palestinians who respond to their very real humanitarian plight with the urge to resist to find new expressions for their militancy. Those new expressions are almost certain to be more desperate than Hamas, just as Hamas was more desperate than the vestiges of Fatah it replaced.

It’s better that this all take place in the last days of the Bush administration’s watch, so long as it doesn’t discourage the Obama administration from attempting a bold approach to the situation. Hopefully that will include a reconsideration of Hamas’ place in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Whether we bring Hamas to the table, or the table to Hamas, there’s no stable end to this conflict until the urge that Hamas represents is included in the equation.

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