Hamas is not the real problem
Israeli governments have avoided dealing with Hamas not because they fear that engaging the organization might not produce a peace agreement, but because they know they could not manipulate Hamas the way they have been able to manipulate Abbas.
Haaretz has courageously and repeatedly exposed the deceitfulness of this and previous Israeli governments' pretense that their goal is to find a viable Palestinian peace partner. It is therefore important to guard against the implication of the question - whether Israel should engage Hamas in peace talks - posed by the paper, namely that Israeli governments have had an interest in holding peace talks if only they could find a willing partner. Time and again, when presented with a choice between peace and continuing Israel's expropriation of Palestinian land, Israeli governments have chosen land over peace. Indeed, an American president who shows the slightest signs of taking peacemaking seriously is immediately suspected - not only by Israeli governments but by Israel's public - of anti-Israel, if not anti-Semitic, motivations.
Israeli governments have avoided dealing with Hamas not because they fear that engaging the organization might not produce a peace agreement, but because they know they could not manipulate Hamas the way they have been able to manipulate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - namely, by using content-less peace talks as a fig leaf for the continued expansion of the settlement enterprise. Israeli governments have latched onto Abbas as their peace partner of choice not because of his "moderation" - his conditions for a peace agreement are not much different from those of Hamas (after all, Hamas has agreed to allow Abbas to conduct peace talks on behalf of a unity government) - but because negotiations with Abbas shield them from the need to deal with Hamas while at the same time enabling them to claim that he is incapable of delivering popular support for the compromises he needs to make. It is a classic case of having your cake and eating it too.
If an Israeli government were truly interested in reaching a peace accord that would end the occupation and establish a viable Palestinian state, it could do so only with a government that includes both major Palestinian political parties, Hamas and Fatah. It is precisely because Israeli governments know this that they have consistently incited Fatah to engage in fratricidal conflict with Hamas, and threatened to cut off the perks extended to Abbas and his colleagues should he even think of joining it in a unity government.
Undoubtedly, this view of Israel's various governments, and particularly of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, may be dismissed by some as overly harsh. After all, didn't Ariel Sharon seek to reverse his earlier rejectionism by turning Gaza back to the Palestinians, and did not Hamas repay his good intentions with rocket assaults on Israel's civilian population?
The answer to both of these questions is "No." No, Sharon did not intend the removal of the Gaza settlements to reverse Israel's settlement enterprise in the West Bank. Its purpose was the exact opposite: to obtain president George W. Bush's consent for the deepening and widening of Israel's hold on the West Bank. And no, Hamas did not send rockets into Sderot - a war crime no matter what their purpose - in order to repay Sharon for his generosity, but in response to the prime minister's strangling of Gaza, also a war crime.
The man in Israel best qualified to know exactly what Sharon had in mind is Dov Weisglass. He was not only Sharon's closest confidant, political advisor, personal lawyer, and chief of the Prime Minister's Bureau, but also the one who negotiated the deal with the United States over the removal of the Gaza settlements on behalf of Sharon. Here is how Weisglass described that deal, in an interview in Haaretz:
"What I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of the settlements [i.e., the major settlement blocs in the West Bank] would not be dealt with at all, and the rest will not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns.... The significance [of the agreement with the United States] is the freezing of the political process. And when you freeze that process you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package that is called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed from our agenda indefinitely. And all this with [President Bush's] authority and permission... and the ratification of both houses of Congress."
That is why the first question should not be, "Should Israel talk to Hamas?" but rather, "Should Israel be allowed by the United States and the international community to continue its settlement enterprise to the point of irreversibility?" Netanyahu has already broken his promise to President Barack Obama regarding a limited moratorium on construction outside the settlement blocs. Construction in those settlements continues stealthily. An appropriate response to this continuing deceit would be an American engagement with Hamas, conditioned on Hamas' implementation of its promise to allow Abbas to negotiate a peace agreement on behalf of a unity government. This would be a clear indication by the United States and the international community that the answer to that first question is "No."
Henry Siegman is director of the U.S./Middle East Project and a former national director of the American Jewish Congress and of the Synagogue Council of America.