On the day Israelis elected their 17th Knesset, the Palestinian Legislative Council ratified the Hamas cabinet. In presenting the platform of his government to the PLC, which convened in Ramallah, Prime Minister-designate Ismail Haniyeh declared that it would "work toward peace that will end the occupation" and restore rights. He was hinting that his government would be ready to enter into talks with Israel concerning the daily life of the Palestinians; he even called on the international community (the Quartet) to recognize his government.
Thus, Haniyeh avoided the question of the legitimacy of Israel and the demand that he recognize it.
Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz counseled caution in relating to Haniyeh's moderate declarations, and suggested judging the Hamas government by its deeds. In so doing, he expressed the opinion of the political echelon and the security establishment, which consistently object to temporary cease-fire agreements with terror organizations that refuse to put down their weapons to enable diplomatic action. They claim that a time-out in combating the organizations that adhere to armed struggle allows them to strengthen their military might and their hold on public opinion in the territories, while winning international recognition and aid - all without paying any particularly difficult political-ideological price whatsoever.
On the other hand, one should not ignore the fact that Haniyeh chose to sound relatively moderate in his pragmatic speech. It is too soon to know whether he is reflecting the dominant mood in his movement. His tone apparently shows Hamas' aspiration to focus on putting its own house in order and on rehabilitating the economy - goals that require calm in relations with Israel.
Israel's new government must announce its willingness to talk to any Palestinian element that calls for an agreement based on a two-state solution. Israel has no interest in lowering the threshold of demands from the Haniyeh government to below the one set by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas: recognition of all prior agreements signed with Israel, including an end to the armed struggle.
The Arab Summit, which convened yesterday in Khartoum, Sudan, also conformed to that threshold, which the summit determined at its own initiative in March 2002, based on pan-Arab recognition of Israel living in peace alongside a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.
The parties that come out on top in Israel's elections must make a serious effort toward a comprehensive diplomatic move that will lead to a peace agreement and the end of the conflict. The proposal by Kadima, supported by the parties to its left, to carry out unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank, is not suggested as the preferred solution, rather as one that would be undertaken if it becomes clear that there is no chance for an agreement.
This unilateralism comes to spur on diplomatic efforts, certainly not to make them redundant from the outset.
It is to be hoped that the Palestinians will openly accept the agreed-upon rules of the game. Abbas, in an interview in Haaretz last Friday, expressed his desire to renew negotiations without preconditions. If Hamas is willing to go the same route, it must clear the fog away from its positions and renounce the armed struggle.