Talking to Gaza

It won't be a disaster if Israel announces it will be willing to cooperate with any Palestinian government, even one including Hamas.

"Hamas is responsible for everything that goes on in the Gaza Strip," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said. "Hamas is responsible for planning the [recent bombing] attack and perhaps even more," Defense Minister Ehud Barak told us, adding that Hamas is responsible for both harming civilians and for Gilad Shalit's well being.

But Hamas is not only "responsible" - it is playing a central role in the ongoing talks in Egypt to extend the cease-fire and to reopen the border crossings. Hamas will set the conditions for a reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority; Europe is reevaluating its policy toward the group; Turkey believes it should become a political organization that "does not carry weapons," and Hamas is suggesting that U.S. President Barack Obama negotiate with it.

On the face of it, history can now rejoice. It has taught the same lesson to nearly every leader confronting a national movement. The IRA in Ireland was a terrorist group until it became a partner to the peace talks; the United States administration in Iraq struck an alliance with "terrorists" to restore order and even supported incorporating such groups into the new Iraqi army; senior army officers in Afghanistan favor deals with tribal chiefs who once acted as the heads of terrorist groups, because the central government lacks power and authority in the periphery of the country; some Islamic terrorist groups in Egypt were embraced by the regime for seeing the "light," and the PA, Israel's partner in the diplomatic process, was once seen as a terrorist organization that should be contained.

However, history should not to be too quick to rejoice. Statesmen are always certain that they can reinvent it - each time anew. So, too, it is with the Gaza Strip. An entire army with its guns and aircraft can fight Hamas as if it were a regular army, it can create a list of civilian targets, it can try and target Hamas' leaders, snub any statesman or country seeking to hold diplomatic ties with the group, and impose on it responsibility for over 1.5 million citizens. All the while, it will continue to consider Hamas a terrorist organization, as if it were simply a gang of infiltrators that plants bombs, or a cell of suicide bombers.

This duality has political reasoning. It is a convenient way of splitting the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and of avoiding any diplomatic process. After all, how is it possible to sign a peace treaty with the Palestinian Authority if one accepts the fact it cannot deal with the security threat? How significant will any deal with the PA be if it represents only about 60 percent of Palestinians? Would Israel sign an agreement with the government of Lebanon without being assured it would disarm Hezbollah, or at least turn it into part of the Lebanese army?

Israel still doesn't understand something Egypt learned a long time ago. Despite the mutual hatred between Egypt and Hamas, Egypt has worked for months to promote reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. The Egyptian initiative, which brought about the cease-fire, predicates that reconciliation talks need to take place; these are set to begin in Cairo this month. The purpose is to establish a unified Palestinian government that will take responsibility, thus preventing a situation in which it is necessary to talk to Ramallah and Gaza separately - once with Fatah and once with Hamas or the Islamic Jihad. Egypt has its own reasons for this move: It does not want to be responsible for the Gaza Strip and is concerned by the idea of splitting Gaza and the West Bank, which is precisely what Israel would like to see happen.

But a unified Palestinian government is clearly in Israel's interest. It is a governing body: Even if it won't be willing to make peace with Israel, it will at least be able to manage a hostility-free state, in which civilian life proceeds normally - at least until political conditions in the territories, Israel and the United States reach the next stage. It won't be a disaster if Israel announces it will be willing to cooperate with any Palestinian government, even one including Hamas. No option, neither military nor diplomatic, will suffer as a result. It seems that even our honor will remain untarnished. We won't tell anyone that there have been such cases in the past - some of which were even successful.