Abbas' Secret Negotiator Says Israel and Hamas Now 'Natural Partners' for Peace Deal

Hussein Agha warns Trump his peace team is misguided if it thinks it can buy Palestinians off with economic incentives

Palestinian Hamas top leader Ismail Haniyeh / Hussein Agha / Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis

WASHINGTON - A close confidant of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says Israel’s current right-wing government has a better chance of reaching an agreement with Hamas than with the Palestinian Authority.

Hussein Agha, a scholar who represented Abbas in multiple secret negotiations with Israel, made the comment in a lengthy interview with Fathom Journal, a British publication that focuses on Israel.

“Theoretically the natural partners for a kind of ‘peace’ now are Hamas and the Israeli right-wing. They are the only two partners that can reach an agreement that will be acceptable to both and at the same time fit their respective ideologies,” Agha said in the interview, which was published as part of a special edition marking 25 years to the signing of the Oslo Accords.

Oslo Accords 25 years.

Agha, who was involved in secret negotiations and unofficial diplomatic efforts with Israel throughout the last two decades, explained why he believes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and Hamas have the potential to reach some understandings. “Neither side believes in a permanent resolution of the conflict so they can each accept interim agreements stretching over long periods of time,” he said.

Agha explained that in contrast to Hamas, which is an Islamist movement with strong connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, “the PLO and Fatah, the non-religious parts of the Palestinian national movement, are totally fixated on a final deal [with Israel], but there is no partner in Israel for the kind of deal they have in mind. And Netanyahu does not have a partner on the Palestinian side for the kind of final deal he wants.”

Netanyahu, he added, “might find [a partner] in Hamas, because for Hamas it doesn’t matter what they get at any particular point in time; finality, closure and end of conflict are not issues that bother them. They believe in accumulating assets, building an Islamic society. So they are flexible. They are fatalists who believe that Israel will inevitably disappear, so it does not really matter.”

In recent weeks, Israel and Hamas have been holding unofficial negotiations, through UN and Egyptian mediation, over a long-term cease-fire in Gaza. The Netanyahu government has been conducting these negotiations despite earlier promises by cabinet members to invade Gaza and put an end to Hamas’ decade-long rule of the coastal enclave. Abbas has claimed these negotiations are meant to strengthen Hamas at the expense of the PA.

Last week, America’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, said during a closed-door briefing that reaching an agreement over Gaza without PA involvement would be a “tremendous prize to Hamas.”

President Donald Trump meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, May 2017.
Evan Vucci,AP

Agha, however, warned there were also limitations to any deal with Hamas, because, being an Islamist movement, it doesn’t represent the majority of Palestinian society – which is devoutly Muslim but doesn’t support political Islam of the kind Hamas represents.

Oslo Accords - 25 years on

Agha has been involved in Palestinian politics for decades, despite the fact that he himself is not Palestinian. He grew up in Lebanon and became active in the Palestinian national movement as a young man. Over the years he won the trust of then-PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Abbas, and both leaders deployed him in secret negotiations with Israel during the past 25 years. Israelis who worked with Agha mostly described him as brilliant, and some have forged personal friendships with him.

In 2013-2014, Agha held a series of meetings in London with Isaac Molho, Netanyahu’s personal attorney and close confidant. Agha and Molho drafted a framework for a peace agreement that touched on many of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s core issues. That draft was supposed to be the basis of a peace agreement during the negotiations led by former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. However, both Abbas and Netanyahu never officially accepted it.

In the 24-page interview with Fathom, Agha did not mention the talks with Molho even once. He did, however, say that during 2014, Netanyahu “was capable of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians.” He also said that the main obstacle to reaching a peace agreement is the political reality on both sides. “I have a framework agreement in my pocket that does not trespass on Israeli or Palestinian red lines. But as well as the content, you need the right political context. I have the content but we don’t have the context,” he said.

Learning from Trump

Today, Agha, said, he does not believe Netanyahu is interested in a comprehensive peace agreement, noting that “right now it’s not worth his while. He can do without it at little cost; so why bother, why take the risk?”

This is partly why he believes Netanyahu could benefit more from a limited agreement with Hamas than from a comprehensive agreement with the PA.

Agha also discussed the efforts of President Donald Trump’s peace team, which is supposed to release a detailed peace plan sometime in the near future. He warned that while Trump is “serious in seeking a deal,” the way “his team are going about securing that deal is not always apt.”

He criticized the U.S. administration’s attempt to substitute discussions over the “core issues” of the conflict – such as Jerusalem, borders and refugees – with economic initiatives.

“They seem to believe that improving their economic situation will make Palestinians politically compliant, ‘moderate,’ acquiescent and satisfied with much smaller objectives. I think they are wrong to expect that,” Agha said.

He also explained that “historically, the most radical elements amongst the Palestinians have always been the better off, not the poorest. The leadership of the Palestinians came from well-off families, people who could have easily had a comfortable middle-class existence, but they chose the armed struggle. Hamas’ leaders are all engineers, doctors and professionals. You cannot dull people’s political feelings by throwing money at them,” he warned.

According to Agha, an economic plan will work only if it is accompanied by a clear political plan that outlines the future life Israelis and Palestinians will have.

“We need that umbrella,” he said: “A one pager that agrees two states for two peoples, two capitals in Jerusalem, a fair and agreed resolution to the refugee problem. Yes, it will not produce a peace agreement overnight; yes, it will not immediately produce dramatic changes on the ground; and yes, it will not mean the complete end of conflict. But it would restore hope in the two peoples. Hope is a rare commodity in the region right now; it is essential to restore some appearance of it to make people believe again.”

Agha suggested that perhaps the peace team could “learn from President Trump” how to conduct negotiations, by looking at what he did in the North Korean arena.

“In North Korea he didn’t do anything on the ground. Rather he had a general paper that created a breakthrough and opened up talks about what to do next. It may or it may not work, but it opened the door. In the case of Israel-Palestine, [the peace team] are trying to change reality on the ground, without having the much needed political umbrella that will nurture those changes, protect them and give them meaning; without resorting to the political key that will open the door. I hope I am wrong.”