Can ignoring Hamas lead to Israeli-Palestinian peace?

Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza, is being ignored in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Some think that's a big mistake.

Eyad Baba/AP
Palestinians stand around a crater following an Israeli air strike on smuggling tunnels in Rafah, on the border between Egypt and southern Gaza Strip, Wednesday. Hamas security officials in the Gaza Strip say an Israeli airstrike has killed one Palestinian and wounded four. The violence took place as leaders were holding peace talks in Jerusalem.

George Mitchell, President Obama's Middle East peace envoy, rarely misses an opportunity to mention the crucial role he played in helping bring peace to Northern Ireland.

As he makes the rounds in Washington, Jerusalem, and Damascus, trying to shepherd Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, he speaks of the skepticism that plagued the talks in Belfast that ended in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. His point? That Northern Ireland proves that a comprehensive peace deal can be worked out between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas within the next two years, which is Obama's timeline for the peace effort.

But there's a crucial missing element that will undoubtedly trouble the Israeli-Palestinian talks as they move ahead. Gaza, the Palestinian enclave ruled by the Islamist Hamas movement, is not at the table. Asked recently if the US would reach out to Hamas, Mr. Mitchell flatly said "no."

A blast of mortar fire from Gaza on Wednesday – and Israeli retaliation Thursday – served as a raucous reminder that Hamas isn't going to stand idle as the talks proceed.

"Whether you like or hate Hamas, they’re there, they're significant, and you can’t ignore them," says Ali Abunimah, author of "One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse" and a founder of the Electronic Intifada, a pro-Palestinian website.

"Palestinian's don’t get to choose who the Israeli leaders are. And if they did, I wouldn’t choose the current array of Israeli leaders. I'm not saying that Hamas represents all Palestinians, but it does represent a significant proportion and it’s simply unrealistic to pretend they don’t exist, or worse, try to destroy them," he says.

Israel refuses to deal with Hamas since it refuses to recognize the Jewish state's right to exist. What's more, Fatah is at odds with Hamas because of its Islamist policies and because, without access to the Gaza Strip, it's losing revenue. And the United States deems Hamas a terrorist organization.

Hamas, in turn, isn't in favor of peace talks. Its leaders argue that Mr. Abbas's decision to negotiate is providing cover for an Israeli government that continues to take chunks out of possible future Palestinian state. Gaza has about 35 percent of the Palestinians living in historic Palestine.

Mahmoud Zahar, the architect of the Hamas takeover in Gaza, said in a statement Wednesday that Abbas had proven he was "weak" for reversing a previous demand that settlement expansion be halted as a precondition for talks, and dismissed the US as an honest broker, because it will "eventually side with Israel ... building settlements, (and) confiscating Palestinian land."

Earlier this month, the group took credit for the killing of four Israelis in the West Bank.

The situation between Hamas, Fatah, Israel, and the US creates a stark contrast with the Northern Ireland talks.

In that instance, the Republican factions, most crucially the nonviolent Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) then derided by the British government and Northern Irish Unionists as terrorists, had spent four years creating a unified negotiating front, however uneasy.

The British had back-channel talks of their own going on with Sinn Fein before the talks. In 1994, President Clinton invited Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to Washington at Mitchell's urging and over staunch British objections. Why? Mitchell then argued that it would give a man then considered a terrorist by Britain the stature with his own people to eventually negotiate a peace.

"While the Northern Ireland analogy of an eventual IRA/Sinn Fein acceptance of ceasefire and democratic rules of the game is true, they were certainly never asked to recognize the legitimacy of Northern Ireland's union with the British mainland as a precondition for entering talks," Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator now director of the Middle East Initiative at the New America Foundation, wrote earlier this month. "As for Hamas, they can largely relax, watch the PA leadership squirm, and clip the political coupons. No incentive has been created for Hamas to OK this new peace process; in fact quite the opposite. Their spoiler role is being encouraged."

Mitchell also frequently highlights the darkness-before-the-dawn nature of international peace talks, referring to the Northern Ireland example on more than one occasion recently as "700 days of failure and one day of success."

Unfortunately, the specific conditions in Israel and Palestine are far less auspicious for peace than those that prevailed in Ireland 14 years ago.

"In Northern Ireland the British had played for many years a game of divide and rule, playing off the so-called moderate nationalists against the extremists. What changed with Mitchell and the Clinton administration is they really supported a broad nationalist front in Ireland," says Mr. Abunimah. "Now, it's exactly the opposite. You have Mitchell, Tony Blair and the Americans working to divide the Palestinians."

He says that the both US and Israeli policy is to keep Fatah (which recognizes Israel's right to exist) and Hamas separated. That, he says, is a compelling reason to doubt a meaningful outcome from current talks.

Hamas itself has occasionally struck a conciliatory tone. It offered a long-term cease-fire with Israel a few years ago and, Abunimah says, has signaled a willingness to walk a political path. But it has conditions, too. Most seriously, it demands the "right of return" to Israel and the Palestinian Territories for millions of Palestinian refugees now living in other countries. For now, however, it's hard to imagine Hamas backing down from its position and for the US and Israel to approach opening any dialog with the other Palestinians in Gaza.

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