Talk With Hamas

The two-year siege and boycott that included starvation, blackouts and bombardments have produced no sign that Hamas is weaker. On the contrary.

Click here for more articles by Gideon Levy

The situation in the south is depressing. Qassam rockets are being fired out of a territory beset by boycott, siege and intolerable conditions at Israeli communities whose situation is no more tolerable, and the Israeli defense establishment admits it has no real response. With the exception of a few loud-mouthed politicians including Kadima head Tzipi Livni who have elections in mind, most level-headed politicians know the truth: There is no military solution. No wide-scale or small operation; no targeted killing or bombing will help, nor is there a military solution for the situation of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit.

So what's left to do but shrug? Gaza is banished and impoverished, Sderot is threatened and despaired and no one dares try to break the vicious cycle.

Even outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who in the twilight of his political career has excelled by making some blunt and courageous remarks, has done nothing. If any debate is held over what course of action to pursue it is either for or against a "wide-scale operation." Meanwhile, analysts sit in news studios and dispatch advice, all of it belligerent and militaristic. Politicians, generals and the public all know that any substantial incursion into the Gaza Strip will be a catastrophe. Still, no one dares ask why, for heaven's sake, not try to talk directly with Hamas?

Gaza has an established authority that seized power democratically and then forcibly, and proved it has the power to control the territory. That, in itself, isn't bad news after a period of anarchy. But Israel and the world don't like Hamas. They want to overthrow it, but their diabolical scheme isn't working out. The two-year siege and boycott that included starvation, blackouts and bombardments have produced no sign that Hamas is weaker. On the contrary: The ceasefire was violated first by Israel with its unnecessary operation of blowing up a tunnel.

What everybody already knew to be false - that the political choice of a people could be changed through violence, that the Gazans could be made into Zionists by being abused - was tried anyway. Now we have to finally change direction, to do what nobody has tried before, if only because we have no other choice.

Any excuse against such an attempt does not hold water. Hamas doesn't recognize Israel; what does it matter? Hamas is a fundamentalist movement? That's irrelevant. Hamas will decline holding talks? Let's challenge it. Direct talks with Hamas will weaken Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas? He's weak anyway.

What does Israel have to lose besides its much-anticipated wide-scale operation that it can carry out anytime? Why not try the diplomatic option before the military one, and not the other way around like we're used to?

Events seem even more bizarre because Olmert, the belated man of peace, realizes he has nothing to lose and is currently advancing talks with Syria. His trip to Turkey tomorrow over negotiations with Damascus is praiseworthy, but on his way to Ankara he should visit the Erez crossing with Gaza and call on Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh to meet him for talks over the security situation and the Shalit prisoner exchange. That would change everything. Israel has nothing to lose. Our policy is such that we don't talk to Abbas because he's too weak and we don't talk to Haniyeh because he's too strong.

Israel is negotiating with Hamas through Egyptian channels anyway. Is it not more reasonable to try holding direct talks? Let us not forget the tired cliche: Negotiations are held between the bitterest of enemies. So it goes and so it will be even after more blood is spilled, so why not try to avoid such bloodshed? We've already been in this predicament. For years we said no to talks with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. What did that yield? Nothing but an unnecessary and cursed intifada, after which we started negotiating with them.

There's no chance that Hamas will change its stripes entirely, but direct talks may be more pragmatic than they seem. It has some reasonable leaders who value life and want to improve the wretched situation of their nation. They, too, realize the current situation is a dead-end for both us and them.

Israel should offer to lift the siege and boycott in return for a long-term calm. But we're preoccupied with ourselves: When do we start bombing? When do we start conquering? Who's our next target for elimination? That all this has already been tried and proven to lead nowhere has not budged us from our stubborn position.

That is why I address the prime minister in a desperate final call: Break the taboo. Bravely urge your counterpart Haniyeh to meet with you. As you said over the weekend on talks with Syria: "How can we be sure if we don't try?" Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu, Labor's Ehud Barak or Livni might not like it, but that certainly shouldn't concern you anymore.