Unify the Palestinians, Neutralize Hamas

A Hamas-Fatah unity government has been considered an anathema even by liberals. But Professor Dov Waxman suggests that making Hamas a part of the accepted Palestinian government is in Israel's best interest.

The apparent failure of the latest in a string of attempts to reconcile the rival Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, has been met with a resounding silence from supporters of a two-state solution in Israel and the United States.

The continued division of the West Bank and Gaza Strip into two mini-states each governed by authoritarian regimes—Fatah’s in the West Bank and Hamas’ in Gaza— appears to suit everyone just fine, except of course for the Palestinians and anyone who supports a two-state solution. Only with a national unity government in Palestine is it possible to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace. And that unity government must include Hamas.

Including Hamas in a Palestinian government has long been regarded as an anathema. After all, Hamas has always steadfastly refused to accept Israel’s right to exist (and its 1988 founding Charter is replete with anti-Semitic references), so giving it a say in a Palestinian government could effectively give it a veto over any kind of Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

This is a serious objection, but it is not at all certain that Hamas would use its position in a unity government to prevent peace. If Palestinian public opinion strongly supported a peace agreement and Hamas would face a popular backlash if it tried to torpedo such an agreement, then it might reluctantly go along with the popular consensus. Further, if Hamas’ rank and file benefited from its position in a unity government, then it would also face internal pressure to remain in the government and accept a peace agreement.

Hamas’ inclusion in a unity government could potentially give it a strong political incentive not to spoil future negotiations with Israel. Continuing to politically ostracize and marginalize Hamas, on the other hand, gives it every reason to undermine in any future peace process.

The history of the failed Oslo peace process is highly instructive in this regard. Hamas’ terrorist attacks—especially the suicide bombings of Israeli buses in 1995-1996, which helped Netanyahu get elected prime minister for the first time—played a major role in undermining the peace process. Today, Hamas’ arsenal of rockets could be equally, if not more, devastating to the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian peace. The best way to prevent Hamas violence is to give it a seat in government. If it has something to lose—political power, popular support, and patronage—it is surely less likely to fire its rockets at Israel. Indeed, Hamas’ recent restraint is proof of this.

Bringing Hamas in from the cold might not only ensure that it doesn’t resort to violence in order to torpedo Israeli-Palestinian peace talks; it may also encourage Hamas’ moderation. Hamas is not a monolithic organization, nor is it as dogmatic as it is often depicted. Although it remains ideologically committed to the destruction of Israel and to the creation of an Islamic state in its place, Hamas is pragmatic in pursuing this long-term goal and is willing to make short-term compromises and concessions (if for no other reason than to maintain its public support in Gaza and the West Bank).

Hamas can be induced to forsake violence as a means of resistance (Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas’ external leadership, has recently proposed this), and maybe even to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem alongside the State of Israel. Some senior Hamas leaders (most notably, Meshaal and Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza) have already expressed a willingness to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. As Meshaal put it in a television interview in 2010: “If Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders, so that will be the end of the Palestinian resistance.”

While the sincerity of these statements may be doubted, shouldn’t we put them to the test? At a time when other Islamist parties are taking power in the Middle East, including Hamas’ parent organization the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and showing tentative signs of moderation, it is time to see if Hamas really is willing to accept a two-state solution.

Let me be clear, I am not recommending that Israel negotiate directly with Hamas—such negotiations are unlikely to go anywhere—only that a unified Palestinian government include Hamas. However unattractive this might be to Israel’s supporters (especially given Hamas’ history of terrorism), maintaining the status quo is worse. As long as the Palestinians remain divided and without a single, legitimate government to negotiate in their name and implement any subsequent agreement, the prospects for a two-state solution are bleak.