Opinion |

Hamas' Pragmatism Creates a New Partner for Israel

The Islamic organization wants to maintain its control over Gaza, which coincides with Israel's strategic goals

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Holding a rifle, Ismail Haniyeh is mobbed by the Gaza public.
Holding a rifle, Ismail Haniyeh is mobbed by the Gaza public.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Israelis’ enthusiasm over Hamas’ apathy toward Islamic Jihad’s private war against Israel was like that of someone who found an uncle who was lost for decades. Hamas suddenly became Israel’s go-to not only in the Gaza Strip but also in Jerusalem and throughout Palestine. Calls for talking directly with Hamas are already seen as necessary, natural and appropriate, and Israel’s numerous relief measures in the Strip are being deemed a “gift” to Hamas. Truly, it’s the fulfillment of the vision of Benjamin Netanyahu, who once said, “If they give, they’ll get; if they don’t give, they won’t get.”

Days of war: Understanding this weekend's Israel-Gaza flare-up

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There’s just one little problem: The groom doesn’t want to talk to the bride. He not only loathes her, but he also doesn’t recognize her and opposes her very existence. Hamas’ raison d’etre, as an Islamic national resistance movement, rests on the fundamental principle that “There shall be no recognition of the legitimacy of the Zionist entity. Whatever has befallen the land of Palestine in terms of occupation, settlement building, Judaization or changes to its features or falsification of facts is illegitimate” (the amended Hamas Charter of 2017).

True, the PLO’s covenant includes similar clauses, yet Israel signed the Oslo Accords with it, and over the years the organization has become a partner that even coordinates security with Israel. The vast difference is that the PLO bore the title “sole representative of the Palestinian people,” winning recognition not only from a majority of Palestinians, but also from Arab states. Hamas is a separatist organization, does not belong to the PLO and is a bitter rival of the PLO’s largest component, Fatah, and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. Moreover, while the PLO sat down at the negotiating table, Hamas wouldn’t dream of doing so.

Israel has successfully exploited the violent rivalry between the two organizations. It has put up a show of being willing to conduct negotiations on a diplomatic solution, but always set one fundamental precondition that thwarted them. The Palestinian partner isn’t capable of controlling Hamas, suppressing terrorism or making Hamas abide by the Oslo Accords, and it doesn’t represent the entire Palestinian people. Therefore, there’s no one to talk to, despite Israel’s uncontrollable urge to achieve peace.

Israeli FM Shimon Peres signs the historic Israel-PLO Oslo Accords in a ceremony as Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin, US President Bill Clinton and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat look on, September 1993Credit: J. DAVID AKE/AFP

That’s how Israel has managed to this day to maintain the occupation without paying a diplomatic price. The fact that Hamas didn’t participate in the latest round of fighting is also presented as a success for Israel’s policy of separating the West Bank from Gaza, as if this were what forced Hamas to fall in line with Israel’s dictates.

The logical conclusion is that talking directly with Hamas – even if it were possible – would not only feed into this false Israeli claim but entrench it by continuing to give the organization veto power over any move seen as signaling acceptance of Israel. Hamas is not a partner, and it is not a substitute for a partner, but it is a pragmatic organization that is committed to its own survival and its continued rule of Gaza, and that is also Israel’s strategic goal.

The most effective, tried-and-true way to achieve this shared goal is based not on the delusion of direct talks with Hamas, but rather on securing and shaping a web of regional guarantees. The bridgehead has already been established, in the form of Egyptian and Qatari involvement. This network could now be expanded to include Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and maybe even the European Union – all of which could mobilize to fund Gaza’s reconstruction and improve the quality of life there.

A Hamas clerk in the Gaza Strip, holding up her salary, paid for by Qatar, in December 2018.Credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

This doesn’t just mean small-scale largess like granting work permits or transit visas to students, expanding the permitted fishing zone off Gaza’s coast and letting Qatar transfer funds to pay civil servants’ salaries. It would entail a strategic decision to end the closure on Gaza quickly along with a comprehensive plan for the territory’s reconstruction and economic development, all with the supervision of and guarantees from the “rescue countries.”

This is the way to conduct direct negotiations with Gazans, without waiting for Hamas to recognize Israel and without holding direct talks with Hamas. Granted, Hamas won’t recant its ideological principles. But it might then don a suit and tie, as befits a civilian political organization that has to administrate its autonomy.

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