Middle East

Israeli Analysts: We Can Deal With Hamas

A conservative Muslim woman reads a Hamas campaign poster plastered on a wall in downtown Hebron, in the West Bank last week. (Photo: Mahmud Hams / AFP-Getty Images)

Fatah is worried about Hamas winning a decisive position within the Palestinian Authority (P.A.). So is the Quartet and Oslo Accords architect Yossi Beilin.

Yet some Israeli analysts argue that, should the Islamist terror group come to power following the January elections, it would not be the tragedy it is made out to be.

Last Monday, P.A. chairman Mahmoud Abbas said he would delay the Jan. 25 parliamentary elections — originally scheduled for last July — if the Israeli government barred Jerusalem Arabs from voting.

It sounded like a patriotic Palestinian declaration, but Mahmoud a-Zahar thought otherwise.

The senior Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip denied that Israel would bar east Jerusalemites. Rather, Fatah, which now controls the P.A., was simply looking for an excuse to delay a long-awaited bruising at the polls.

Indeed, the Islamist movement is expected to win 30-40 percent of the seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, said Col. Ephraim Lavie, former head of the I.D.F. (Israeli Defense Forces) Intelligence's Palestinian desk.

That is an impressive victory given that Hamas has traditionally been supported by only 10-15 percent of the public. So does this mean that, in supporting a fundamentalist terror group, Palestinians have turned more hard-line?

Lavie thinks not.

"The Palestinian population wants peace," he said. "The public wants Fatah, but it didn't succeed in achieving anything."

So why not give the other party a try?

Also, Fatah has been a disaster on the domestic front. In the past month, Palestinian Authority police have been battling rebel Fatah gunmen, who have hijacked vehicles and stormed government buildings. Gangs killed two Egyptian border guards at the Rafah crossing on Wednesday and set an armored vehicle ablaze.

Foreign aid workers have been kidnapped: Even the parents of the late International Solidarity Movement activist Rachel Corrie were targeted. A vote for Hamas seems more and more like a vote for order — a prospect troubling not just to Fatah.

On Dec. 28, the Quartet, comprising the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, said that the P.A. cabinet "should include no member who has not committed to the principles of Israel's right to exist in peace and security and an unequivocal end to violence and terrorism" — that is, Hamas.

Going one step farther, Yossi Beilin, leader of Israel's social democratic Meretz-Yachad party, slammed the participation of Hamas in elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, calling it "a gross violation" of the September 1995 interim agreement.

"Hamas should be held to the same standards as Fatah, the renunciation of terror and accepting U.N. Resolution 242," said Beilin, referring to the Security Council statement on land for peace.

To boost the electoral chances of Fatah, Beilin would even be willing to release jailed Fatah Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti. No angel himself, Barghouti was indicted in August 2002 by the Tel Aviv District Court on 26 counts of murder.

But at least the Fatah Tanzim leader has made public declarations about a two-state solution.

It is ironic that in June, when British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw admitted that his country's diplomats had met twice with officials linked to Hamas, the Israeli government condemned the contacts.

Now, Israel may have to do likewise.

Prime ministerial advisor Dov Weisglass is currently chairing a high-level committee on what to do should the Islamist terror group win a respectable showing in the upcoming Palestinian elections.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has already laid down stringent conditions for negotiating with Hamas, telling Israel TV's Channel Two that the organization "will have to disarm, to recognize Israel's right to exist, to become a political body."

However, a source at the Foreign Ministry said, "The government has not yet come to a position about how to deal with Hamas on questions of local services and utilities."

For its part, Hamas has been trying to step away from its image in the West as a violent, theocratic movement opposed to compromise. In September, Mohammed Ghazal, a senior Hamas representative from Nablus, told Reuters, "The charter is not the Koran."

More recently, a-Zahar said he did not rule out the possibility that Hamas might negotiate with Israel in the future.

"The suicide bombings are not the only means that Hamas possesses," The Jerusalem Post quoted a senior Hamas official in the Gaza Strip as saying.

"We resort to suicide attacks only in response to Zionist atrocities. We use them only when they serve the interests of our people. But when they don't, we stop."

But can Israel trust Hamas?

"It wouldn't be so terrible if Hamas got into power," said Col. Yochanan Tzoreff, former Arab Affairs advisor to I.D.F. Civil Administration in Gaza. "Hamas would need to prove that it could accomplish something once in government."

That would require quiet — and, at some level, coordination — between the two sides.

"They will have to deal with us, just as we will have to deal with them," said Brig. Gen. Uzi Ben-Itzhak, a former Central Command chief of staff. "We have to stop thinking that we can decide for the Palestinians who their leaders will be."

Surprisingly, the most relaxed position on Hamas is taken by Raphael Israeli, a Hebrew University professor associated with the right-wing Ariel Center for Policy Research. Unlike more liberal analysts, Israeli thinks that Hamas coming to power is a win-win situation for the government.

He likewise dismisses the objection made by Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin that Hamas would not rein in terror.

"The P.A. doesn't fight terrorism either, but the West treats Abu Mazen as delicately as a holiday citron," Israeli explained. "With Hamas in power, we will be able to respond and the Europeans and Americans will let us be, and if by some miracle, Hamas wants to negotiate with us, it would no longer be Hamas."