All Writings
October 25, 2011

Israel And Hamas: In the Wake of the Prisoners Exchange

The prisoner swap in which Hamas released Israeli captive Gilad Shalit in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons suggests that Israel and Hamas recognize each other's unmitigated reality and prerogatives. The deal was unquestionably motivated by mutually beneficial political calculations made on both sides, including a desire to overshadow President Abbas' efforts to seek UN recognition of a Palestinian state, to which Hamas and Israel object. Nevertheless, without an outright rejection of terror and recognition that Israel cannot be destroyed, Hamas' growth as a political force will remain limited and potentially mired in failure. Similarly, without Israel recognizing that lasting security is unlikely unless Hamas is included in the political process, efforts to advance a two-state solution will be fruitless.

The growing influences of Egypt and Turkey on Hamas, the Arab Spring and the promise of the Arab Peace Initiative all provide avenues to bridge the gaps between Israel and Hamas. To do so, the Quartet must rethink its three demands on Hamas, (renounce violence, accept Israel's existence and agree to past agreements) which will keep the two-sides mired in a dangerous status quo. Overcoming these obstacles will require new thinking to find a formula that enables each side to save face by altering their positions to move forward in a political process.

Israel's negotiations – even though through Egypt – are the first public indication that Israel recognizes it cannot militarily eliminate Hamas. Israel could not rescue Shalit through military assault, despite its pummeling of Gaza in the winter of 2008/2009. Hamas was emboldened as a result of the prisoner exchange. In a poll taken by Al-Najaf University in Nablus just after the prisoner swap was announced, 67 percent of Palestinians said that they believe that the deal "will increase the support of Hamas among the Palestinians."

Hamas has been further strengthened by the on-again, off-again Palestinian unity talks, which it has entered into without relinquishing any of its avowed positions to oppose peace with Israel. Hamas' chief, Khaled Mashaal has told reporters in the past that he would be willing to accept a two-state formula along the 1967 lines but without acting on it to bring about conflict resolution. Meanwhile, Hamas members have denigrated international efforts to gain Palestinian statehood at the United Nations and remained fiercely opposed to Israel's existence.

These inconsistent postures, including the generally self-imposed ceasefire for the past three years, have enabled Hamas to navigate international circles with the aura of possibility that it could be a partner for peace, even without espousing a unified, clear position or easing its hard-line stance as a ‘resistance movement' against Israel. This posturing forces Israel to spend disproportionately on defense and maintain a state of readiness with ever escalating debilitating financial and human cost.

However, Hamas' rise may be reaching an apex. According to the Al Najah poll, 77 percent of Palestinians believe "that the surrounding Arab and international circumstances necessitate concluding a national reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah." An equal number supported the Palestinian bid to gain statehood recognition at the United Nations. But with Hamas' Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh calling the UN gambit a mere "mirage," Hamas could in fact be blamed for the bids failure, as well as for the failure of reconciliation talks. Even more, whereas 57 percent of Palestinians expect a third intifada, the same number opposes the use of violence. Hamas' political viability could be undermined if it is blamed for another round of violence that dramatically sets back the Palestinian cause. Hamas' challenge is made more difficult as a result of the uprising in Syria which has thrust its patron, Bashar Assad in a fight for the survival of his regime.

Most importantly, Hamas' growth is contingent upon two realizations. The first is that under no circumstances can Hamas destroy Israel. Hamas knows that should it reengage in a campaign of terror against and seriously threatens Israel, Jerusalem will not hesitate to respond by decapitating its leadership, regardless of the international condemnation that would likely follow. Furthermore, until Hamas disavows violence as a tool, to achieve Palestinian statehood and its ability to shape the future of Palestine remains handicapped.

The second realization is that Hamas knows that it too cannot be destroyed. Although Hamas' public support has steadily declined in the past several years, it maintains strong grass-roots following. Whether through a unity government or free and fair elections, Hamas and its ideology of ‘resistance' will persist as a potent force in the Palestinian body politic. The question facing Hamas today is how to reconcile these two contradictory realities: that the organization will endure, but its ultimate objective-the destruction of Israel-will never be fulfilled.

A similar question regarding Hamas faces Israel. While previous and current Israeli governments know that it can wipe out Hamas' leadership, it cannot destroy its ideology, and as long as it remains on the outside of the political process, it can spoil any Israeli efforts to advance negotiations with its Fatah rival. Israel has succeeded in containing Hamas' violent activity, including rocket attacks, due to its considerable deterrence, but it is at least in part constrained by the international opprobrium that has followed its blockade of Gaza, which has further served to strengthen Hamas' position in the international arena.

This policy limbo gripping both sides hardens the status quo. At the same time, neither Israel nor Hamas is prepared to publicly recognize this fact and adjust their policies accordingly. Each side is merely treading water by maintaining these contradictory postures. What is needed is a face saving way out of this deadlock. The status quo will not produce peace or security. If Israel wants peace with Palestinians based on a two-state solution, it simply cannot leave Gaza out of the equation. Meanwhile, if a unity government is reached, and talks are currently being held between Fatah and Hamas, some in the international community are likely to withdraw Palestinian aid on the grounds that Hamas has not met the three Quartet conditions.

Hamas and Israel must adopt a new strategy in order to create a face saving formula that will enable each side to adjust its positions. So what can be done?

First, as the prisoner exchange deal attests, the growing influence of Egypt in Hamas' internal calculations could serve toward an easing of direct hostilities between Hamas and Israel. Israel has a strategic interest to maintain ties with the Egyptian authorities, particularly in the military establishment. With Bashar Assad's future in doubt, Hamas too has significant interests in maintaining solid ties with its Egyptian neighbors. Egypt's role can be expanded to issues related to security and economic concerns along the Gaza-Israel and Egypt-Gaza borders, as well as along the Gaza coastline.

Second, just as Egypt has deepened ties with Hamas as its ties with Israel were placed into doubt following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, Turkey-Israel ties have deteriorated as Turkey-Hamas relations have strengthened. Israel could signal to Turkey to play a mediating role between Jerusalem and Gaza, as Israeli President Peres acknowledged it did in the prisoner swap, bolstering Israeli-Turkish relations in the process. Turkey was a quiet but key player in Gilad Shalit's release, agreeing to accept some of the released Palestinian prisoners in Turkey for exile. Turkey's assistance in helping Israel and Hamas reach sustainable security, economic and political arrangements will be essential in restarting a process of mending ties between Jerusalem and Ankara.

Third, the Arab Spring forced Israel to listen to the demands of the Palestinian street. Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank are not likely to remain silent in a region that is undergoing a transformation of epic proportions. The Palestinians street cannot be left out of the revolutionary freedom wave crossing the Middle East for long. It is in Israel's strategic and security interests – and Hamas' political interest – to keep Palestinian protests peaceful so as not to derail any hopes of riding the Arab spring's momentum to a realization of Palestinian national aspirations.

Fourth, the long dormant Arab Peace Initiative could enable Hamas to soften its stance on the political process with Israel by aligning itself with the stated position of the entire Arab League. In turn, the Israeli public, notwithstanding the objections of the Netanyahu government, should be persuaded to accept the centrality, and in fact the indispensability, of the Arab Peace Initiative in principle as the basis for renewed negotiations with Arab states and a framework for talks. Egypt, because of its proximity, centrality in Arab affairs and security interests, and Saudi Arabia because it's the custodian of Sunni Islam must press Hamas to give up violence and accept the principles of the Arab Peace Initiative.

Finally, the Quartet should re-examine its formula for engaging Hamas, particularly in connection with recognizing Israel and accepting prior agreements. There are members of the Israeli cabinet who do not renounce violence, recognize the right of Palestine to exist or accept previously negotiated agreements. To ask it of Hamas is simply a ploy to avoid the inevitable-negotiating with them. Instead of the unrealistic conditions, the Quartet should publicly state one clear condition to be accepted by the international community: Hamas must renounce violence in any form, a condition which Hamas has de-facto accepted. Challenging Hamas to rise to the occasion could spur the kind of change necessary to break the deadlock that is currently gripping the Middle East peace process.

Since the Gaza war, Israel and Hamas have been engaged in a chess game, with each side making marginal gains, and losing critical pieces in relations to the other side. Today, they are in a deadlock, with neither side able to put the other in checkmate. Egypt and Turkey, with the support of the Quartet, can help the parties find a common denominator, utilizing the momentum of the Arab Spring and the promise of the Arab Peace Initiative. Now is the time to make concerted efforts to force a game-changer, without which the region could be headed toward a dangerous and violent explosion.