Israel and Hamas: A new equation for Mid-East peace?
RSIS presents the following commentary Israel and Hamas: A new equation for Mid-East peace? by James M. Dorsey. It is also available online at this link. (To print it, click on this link.). Kindly forward anycomments or feedback to the Editor RSIS Commentaries, atRSISPublication@ntu.edu.sg
No. 156/2011 dated 27 October 2011
Israel and Hamas: A new equation for Mid-East peace?
By James M. Dorsey
Israeli and Palestinian hardliners rather than moderates are serving each other's purpose in the Middle East conflict. That is the underlying dynamic of the political calculations of both Israel and Hamas in the recent lop-sided swap of an Israeli soldier for over a thousand Palestinian prisoners.
THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN peace process remains frozen with little, if any,
prospect of it gaining momentum. President Mahmoud Abbas' effort to achieve
United Nations recognition of Palestinian statehood in a bid to break the
logjam is mired in diplomatic red tape and likely to be foiled by a United States
veto if it comes up for a vote in the Security Council.
True to form, hardliners on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide are
finding common ground where moderates are grasping for straws. In doing so,
they are reaffirming a long-standing fact of life of the Israeli-Palestinian
equation: hardliners can serve each other’s needs to mutual benefit without
making the kind of wrenching concessions that thwart the ambitions of
peacemakers and moderates on both sides.
The prisoner swap in which Israel bought freedom for now Staff Sergeant
Gilad Shalit after five years in Palestinian captivity in exchange for the release
of 1,027 prisoners - many of whom were responsible for deadly attacks on
Israelis - is the latest example of sworn enemies finding it easier to do business
than those who advocate compromise and living in peace and harmony side by
No peace works for all
Underlying, the swap is a belief on the part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
and Hamas that there is no realistic chance for an agreement on peace terms
that would be acceptable to both Palestinians and Israelis. Given the nature of
his coalition government, Netanyahu has so far been unwilling or unable to give
Abbas the bare minimum he would need to push forward with peace without at least
the tacit backing of Hamas.
While Netanyahu officially refuses to negotiate with Hamas, for its part, Hamas
refuses Israeli conditions for its inclusion in a peace process. These are
that it recognises Israel's right to exist, abandons its armed struggle and accepts
past Israeli-Palestinian agreements. If anything, the fact that it has achieved a
tangible victory with the release of prisoners belonging to both Hamas as
well as Abbas' Fatah movement has reinforced the Islamist movement’s
conviction that its hard line is paying off.
Netanyahu has strengthened Hamas in its conviction not only by excluding
Abbas from the prisoner swap. He has also done so by undermining the
Palestinian president with his decision to build a new Jewish settlement
on the southern edge of Jerusalem and granting legal status to settlements
established without his government’s approval. Abbas has made an Israeli
freeze on settlements his core pre-condition for revival of peace talks with
the Israelis, to no avail.
Temporary arrangements suit all but Abbas
Unlike Abbas, Netanyahu has made his most hardline critics part of
his coalition. Netanyahu and Israel’s right-wing moreover agree on
fundamentals: a rejection of an Israeli return to the borders prior to the
1967 conquest of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and a
perception of a nuclear-armed Iran as the foremost threat to the existence
of the Jewish state. Hamas rather than Abbas offers Netanyahu the
space to build Israeli policy on those two principles. Hamas’ refusal to
meet Israeli conditions for peace negotiations proves the Israeli
prime minister’s assertion that Israel has no Palestinian partner with
which it can do business.
At the same time, Hamas has proven that it can and will
make temporary arrangements with Israel like the prisoner swap or a
ceasefire that safeguards Israeli towns from Palestinian rocket attacks.
Hamas has moreover, contributed its bit to weakening Abbas by effectively
thwarting the Palestinian leader’s efforts at reconciliation so that
Palestinians can confront Israel with a unified front.
The possibility of Hamas’ external wing moving its headquarters from
Syria, Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world, to post-Mubarak Egypt, which
facilitated the prisoner swap, further serves Netanyahu’s purpose of clearing
the deck for possible pre-emptive military action against Iran. Lingering
in the background is uncertainty of what Israel’s immediate neighbourhood
may look like. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is battling for his survival
with no sign of the eight months of mass anti-government protests subsiding
despite a brutal crackdown. Jordan’s King Abdullah has so far been able to
contain demands for political reform and greater economic opportunity.
Israeli military: the joker in the pack
Ironically, Israel’s military and former senior Israeli military commanders
constitute the greatest threat to Netanyahu’s policy designs and may offer
Hamas its best chance yet of becoming a player in peace talks with Israel
as well as the dominant force in Palestinian politics. While Israel’s military
appears split on the prospect of a pre-emptive strike against Iran, at least
half of the retired leaders of Israel’s military and intelligence services have
publicly rejected Netanyahu’s strategic thinking.
Perhaps, most vocal among them is Meir Dagan, a former head of Mossad,
who has not only criticised Netanyahu’s hard line toward Iran but also called
for Israeli acceptance of a nine-year old Saudi peace plan endorsed by all Arab
states. That peace plan offers Israel full diplomatic relations in exchange for a
complete withdrawal from Palestinian lands occupied in 1967.
No doubt Dagan, Hamas’ nemesis who is credited with the death of hundreds
of its operatives, has political ambitions as well as the military credentials
that Netanyahu lacks. His willingness to entertain the Saudi proposal would
open the door to Hamas to take its seat at the table. That could well lead
to a new chapter in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of
International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He has
been a journalist covering the Middle East for over 30 years.
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