A Chance to Change Direction

The Israeli government should recognize the Palestinian unity government because it is now the only chance to stop the bloodshed in Gaza.

The Israeli government can and should recognize the Palestinian unity government. Can recognize - because in his letter of appointment, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas calls on Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh "to honor the legitimate Arab and international resolutions and to honor the agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization." This could be seen as a call to abide by the Oslo Accords, including the three demands leveled by the Quartet (recognizing Israel, honoring prior agreements and denouncing violence). Should recognize - because recognition of the new government is the only way now to renew negotiations with PA head Abbas, who has received the backing of all the Palestinian factions to conduct the talks.

Out of the plethora of declarations and reactions at the end of the Mecca conference, it was important to notice one headline, prominent in several media channels - the one concerning the comments by Hamas leader Khaled Meshal on the letter of appointment that Abbas wrote to Haniyeh. After promising that Hamas will be committed to this letter, Meshal added: "Hamas is adopting new political language."

This does not mark a political turnaround in Hamas. No revolution of clear and official recognition of Israel occurred or will occur, certainly not in the near future. But there is some change. Meshal himself testifies to this change, though no political figure hastens to admit that he is changing his position. The change is evident in the route Hamas has traveled this year - a route that, for many Israelis, was not particularly dramatic, but for the Hamas leadership can be seen as a change in direction.

More than a year ago Hamas agreed, with the other Palestinian factions, to a cease-fire with Israel. This agreement was not so simple for an organization that has made its motto the principle of violent, uncompromising struggle against Israel. Hamas activists more or less maintained the cease-fire for most of the time. Later the movement agreed to participate in PA elections, first for local government and later for the Palestinian parliament. The parliament was created by and operates according to the Oslo Accords.

The decision to participate in elections was not easy for Hamas, as it meant the group was tacitly agreeing to operate as a political party and not as a military organization fighting Israel. Later, there were Hamas government decisions on a willingness to talk, on practical matters, with Israeli government ministries. Later came declarations of willingness for a long-term cease-fire, hudna, with Israel, that would be maintained by the Palestinian state to be established in 1967 borders. And now comes the decision to honor past agreements, which means "adopting new political language," according to Meshal.

The Israeli government also should recognize the Palestinian unity government because it is now the only chance to stop the bloodshed in Gaza. Despite the Mecca deal, there is no certainty that the unity government will be able to function. Strong feelings of hatred and vengeance surfaced among the rival groups over the recent months, and it is hard to know how to handle them.

In an East Jerusalem meeting held over the weekend, a former senior Fatah official from Gaza, Sufian Abu Zaida, described the difficult situations he and his colleagues have recently endured. It has reached the point that Hamas members call him, Mohammed Dahlan and others "murtadi." The meaning of this term is something like "heretic." In practice, it means it is okay to spill his blood. Israeli recognition of the unity government will marginally boost its chances of imposing law and order in the Gaza Strip, and that is not important only to the Palestinians - but to us, too.