For several years now, attacks, criticism and ridicule of Middle East peace efforts have all flowed from the fact that Hamas, the Palestinian opposition, does not recognize Israel and is against negotiations with it. But Hamas governs one part of the proposed Palestinian state and is prominent in the politics of the other part.
People devoted to the peace process have argued back that the Israeli right-wing opposition, too, opposes peace and peace negotiations. Now indeed, with an Israel-Palestinian agreement looming (in their eyes), the Israeli right is vindicating this comparison with Hamas. Rightist ministers and Knesset Members, purportedly part of the coalition, have called for a permanent end to the peace negotiations, beyond the suspension announced by the government itself.
The major problem, however, for Israeli moderates is not the consistent hard line of the right but rather the inconsistent, incoherent line of Israel’s government and the defense establishment. And as usual, that line, sold by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is firing up easily ignited public opinion.
"It's them or us," the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority is now grimly being told. You can't negotiate peace if you have the terrorist Hamas in your camp. You can't have it both ways.
But having it both ways was precisely what Israel demanded of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas until now, and what the international community is still demanding of him, with new hope that he will acquiesce.
How to have it both ways? "Be like Ben-Gurion" was the recommendation formerly emanating from Jerusalem to Ramallah. That didn't necessarily mean the Altalena model – the bloody, demonstrative disciplining of the opposition in 1948. Rather, it meant "One gun, one military authority" in the emerging Palestinian state. And it meant signing up Hamas even before statehood to accept the principle of the Palestinians negotiating with the Jewish state, just as the Zionist opposition parties, (some of them widely condemned as terrorist) effectively accepted (before Israel’s establishment) the Mapai-led Jewish Agency's right to negotiate with the British on behalf of the whole Yishuv.
The Palestinian Authority now claims to have got similar concessions out of Hamas. Israel's response? To suspend the negotiations, even though much of the international community is encouraged by the Palestinian conciliation accord; Israel is deleting the key concept of "having it both ways" from its list of conditions.
Worse still, "them or us" has become a bad-faith fulmination lacking logic or credibility. For in practice it connotes only one thing: Stop negotiating permanently. It is the precise opposite, in other words, of what Israel professed to be urging and demanding until now, in the pursuit of a negotiated agreement on all the key issues of peace. Netanyahu sometimes speaks of pulling off masks and exposing the true faces of his Palestinian interlocutors. The mask, I fear, is on the other face this time.
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