Israel is currently conducting negotiations with Hamas through several tracks. Contact through the direct tracks involves exchanges of fire and mutual recriminations. The indirect tracks run via Egypt and European mediators. However, while the direct "negotiations" with Hamas are carried out in a coordinated operational manner, the indirect talks are going ahead without a comprehensive political outlook or effective negotiation strategy.
There are at least three official negotiation tracks with the Palestinians: the Gilad Shalit track, orchestrated by Ofer Dekel; the hudna (temporary cease-fire) track, led by Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad and Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman; and the Annapolis track, headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. It is evident that this architecture leads to a deadlock precisely because of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's insistence on viewing each of these channels as separate and independent. In its military campaign against Hamas, Israel employs the skill of integrated combat involving intelligence capabilities and air and ground offensives. Must the structure of negotiations be so different?
Of the three negotiation tracks, the Gilad Shalit one is the most problematic, since it entails a structural failure stemming from the fact that there is no overlap on which both sides agree; the maximum political price the prime minister would be willing to pay does not meet the minimum Hamas is willing to accept. Olmert is not willing to pay the price for Gilad Shalit as a separate deal.
The hudna track also operates in a narrow zone. A Gaza Strip that is too quiet will strengthen Hamas in the West Bank and further weaken Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas; a Gaza that is too chaotic will weaken both Hamas and Abbas but will also put Israel under diplomatic and political pressure. A hudna would erode Israel's interests over time, since it would give the terror organizations a chance to get stronger in Gaza as well as in the West Bank.
As far as the Annapolis track goes, at the moment it does not appear to have succeeded in creating a "shelf agreement" that Olmert and Khaled Meshal, the Hamas political bureau head, can both accept and that can give Meshal legitimacy among the Palestinians. In addition, all the security establishment's "gestures" to the Palestinians are understood to be directed toward the United States, not Abbas, who is even closer than usual to leaving the keys on the table.
A solution can be found in a three-dimensional chess board. An integrated, gradual - and primarily, mutual - systemic plan is what's needed. After a necessary military escalation, backed by political developments, an old-style cease-fire will be achieved in the first phase: a cease-fire, the opening of roadblocks and prisoner swaps. The cease-fire will be discussed by a Fatah-Hamas delegation that will conduct direct talks with Israeli military officials. In the second phase, after the cease-fire is established, it will be possible to send international aid into Gaza in exchange for turning the government there back into a Palestinian unity government. The next phases would be dynamic and include components including significant progress on the Annapolis channel, Palestinian Authority elections, the release of prisoners who support the political process and an infusion of donations to strengthen the Palestinian economy.
This basic plan combines Israeli interests as well as compensation of the other side, in all the negotiation tracks that exist today, and removes the artificial distinction between the various tracks. However, implementing an integrated, systemic solution poses a double difficulty. First, merely acknowledging that Israel is negotiating with Hamas is difficult for the decision-makers, and so has been rejected time and again despite the reality on the ground. Second, the professional and political territorial battles among Olmert, Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak make it tough to move forward. This double difficulty can be overcome only through courageous and steadfast leadership that looks at the entire process.
We must fight terrorism all the way, but wisely. Conducting sophisticated and effective negotiations with a terror organization is another tool in the toolbox of the war on terror.
The writer is CEO of Nest Consulting, a negotiations and crisis management organization. He has represented Israel on teams negotiating with Jordan and the Palestinians.
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