Why is it permissible to talk to Hamas about the fate of one captive soldier and another several hundred prisoners, but forbidden to talk to them about the fate of two nations? Never has Israeli logic been so distorted. Now, when our hearts look forward to the deal's implementation, when every human heart should look forward to Gilad Shalit's release - and yes, to the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, some of them political prisoners for all intents and purposes, not just "terrorists with blood on their hands" - now is the time to finally rid ourselves of some of the foolish prohibitions we have imposed on ourselves and the entire international community.
It is now clear that there is someone to talk to. In Gaza and Damascus sit tough but reasonable statesmen. They are also concerned, in their own way, about the fate of their people, they too aspire to bring them freedom and justice. When the deal is implemented we will also discover that they can be taken at their word. Were it not for the fact that Israel is holding tens of thousands of prisoners - some who used base means to achieve a just objective - who are judged differently from Jewish murderers and criminals, perhaps Hamas would not have had to use the weapon of kidnapping.
Were it not for Israel's siege on Gaza and the international boycott against anything that smacks of Hamas, perhaps the organization would not have needed the Qassam rocket. But Israel insists on doing things its own way: It embarked on Operation Summer Rains to win Shalit's release and failed; it imposed a siege on Gaza to apply pressure for his release and brought about another total failure. When Israel recognized its mistakes, for which 1.5 million residents of Gaza are still paying with their bodies and souls, Israel turned to the only just and effective means: diplomatic negotiations.
Yes, we are conducting what we are denying to ourselves: negotiations with Hamas - and the sky hasn't fallen. Whether direct or indirect, there are talks; whether or not we recognize Hamas, there are negotiations. For us, as usual, the method that should come first waits for last. Only after we try all the rest - killing and destruction, war and starvation - do we turn to the direct route: negotiations. That's how it was with Egypt, and that's how it was with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
When the deal is completed, when Shalit and imprisoned Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti return home, Israel must open a new chapter with the outlawed organization. It won't be easy for us. This is a fundamentalist organization that talks about a hudna, a temporary cease-fire, not about peace; perhaps that is the price of the foolish destruction Israel has visited on the institutions of the Palestinian Authority and PLO, which of course were immeasurably more congenial interlocutors. But that milk has been spilled and Hamas is alive and kicking - one reason being Israel's heavy hand against it. Does anyone still seriously believe that Israel can bring down Hamas rule by force? We didn't even succeed in weakening it - on the contrary.
Israel with its lofty "without preconditions" must now turn to Hamas with a call to begin negotiations, preferably with a Palestinian unity government headed by a free Barghouti. It's possible. There is no need to ask for recognition as negotiating partners - we have already recognized Hamas and it has recognized us. Israel must remove the criminal siege against Gaza and call on the international community to remove the boycott against Hamas, which was imposed under Israel's leadership. Enough of international diplomats and statesmen afraid to speak to the organization's representatives for fear that Israel will take action against them. We forbid the French foreign minister and all the world's statesmen from speaking to Hamas, and yet we yearn for the services of the German mediator, who talks to the group. Why?
After the prisoner release, nothing will get Hamas onto a constructive path - instead of the destructive and desperate one it has followed - like the rehabilitation of Gaza. The $4.4 billion that the international community promised eight months ago at the donors' conference in Sharm al-Sheikh, with a great deal of pomp and pathos, to transfer for Gaza's rehabilitation, is still sitting in bank vaults as if there had been no promise. Now is the time to send it.
A free Gaza undergoing rehabilitation will be much less explosive. A Hamas busy rebuilding will behave differently, especially if it is also offered a political horizon. It will have much more to lose, something that is hard to say about Gaza today. So after we finish crossing our fingers for Shalit's release, we have to open the same hand and reach out to Hamas in peace.
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