Israel must talk to Hamas. Not secretly. Not indirectly. Not for a politician to rehabilitate himself on the way to taking over the leadership of a party, as Kadima's Shaul Mofaz tried to do, but openly and seriously. Just as the United States regularly talks to the Israeli opposition, Israel should maintain a dialogue with the Palestinian opposition. The dialogue should cover all core issues including a final settlement.
It's not a simple matter, of course. There is agreement across the political spectrum to reduce the debate to a demonization of Hamas, dwelling on the organization's external attributes as perceived by Israel - religious, extremist and desiring all the territory between the river and the sea. This debate does not focus on the Israeli interest. We should be asking ourselves the following questions: Is it worthwhile to speak with Hamas? What are our reasons for not talking to them? Is boycotting them linked to an erroneous preconception?
Israel rigorously insists that Hamas is not a partner and that our partner is Fatah, headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But negotiations with Fatah have been going on for nearly two decades, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's declaration that he accepts the principle of two states for two peoples looks like just another trick to postpone the demise of the current negotiation process.
In 2004, the Israeli government decided that Yasser Arafat was not relevant. Abbas, Israel's leaders have said, is weak. At the same time, Israel has for years been doing all it can to weaken the Palestinian Authority. That way, it will be possible to prove yet again that although "we have to talk, there's no one you can close a deal with." Even if an agreement is signed under American pressure, the PA will not be able to implement it because more than half the Palestinians don't accept its authority. This is why the refusal to speak with Hamas is pointless. It is no more than a continuation of avoiding talking to the Palestinians by other means.
Hamas' rule in Gaza is the outcome of despair with the Fatah leadership. The deterioration of the situation in Gaza after the ongoing failure of negotiations and the total dependence on Israel for receiving basic needs intensify the despair and extremism. (And no one is talking about the right to free movement, to go abroad to study.) Even today, there are groups resisting Hamas that resemble Al-Qaida. We can drag things out as much as we want, but we have to admit that the notion that time is on our side is baseless. The people who led Abbas to consider resigning and who refuse to talk to Hamas will find themselves in five years with a partner who reports to Osama bin Laden.
Nothing is possible without Gilad Shalit. People may say that the fate of a country cannot be dependent on what happens to one abducted soldier. There is no greater mistake. The abandonment of Shalit is symptomatic of Zionism's failure, the elevation of pride over wisdom and tactics over strategy. It's the denial of the sanctity of life and redeeming prisoners, values that are at the heart and soul of the nation.
Precisely here, the soft underbelly of public opinion, it would be possible to makes progress on the delicate matter of contacts with Hamas. More than 7,000 Palestinians are being held prisoner in Israel. There is one Israeli prisoner in Palestine. The suffering of both sides, and with it the tremendous joy that a prisoner exchange would produce, can and should be the lever for a stepped-up conciliation process.
For years Israel and its citizens have been paying the price of choosing solutions that were appropriate for the last war. Hiding our head in the sand at such a critical stage is dangerous. We have to declare our readiness to speak with the Palestinian opposition, immediately.
The writer is a joint founder of an initiative seeking direct and open talks with Hamas.
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