Israel is talking to Hamas. For three years Israeli officials have been negotiating the release of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. Yet Israel is not talking to Hamas, and has not been, since it came to power in a democratic election. Israel is boycotting not just Hamas, but the rest of the Gaza Strip along with it. And so are the US, the EU, Russia and the UN. What is considered reasonable for the release of one Israeli soldier is not considered appropriate for promoting peace in the Middle East.
Hamas is not any liberal’s cup of tea, in Israel or anywhere else. An organisation based on fundamentalist religious principles, and which does not recognise Israel’s right to exist, is not an ideal partner for peace. But whether we like it or not, Hamas is the legitimate representative of at least half of the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. To deny this is to eliminate any chance of peace. You cannot make peace with half a people, and a viable peace must include the extremists. A Hamas government may be good news: in power, the party may well be more moderate, more responsible and less violent than in opposition. Since Hamas took over, the Strip has been far less anarchic than before.
For decades, Israel has discredited and delegitimised any viable Palestinian partner. In the 1970s and the 1980s, a law prohibited Israelis from meeting any representative of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Anyone who dared to call for negotiations was declared a self-hating traitor. In the early 1990s, the policy changed: Israel recognised the PLO and the prime minister signed a treaty with its leader, Yasser Arafat, on the lawn of the White House. But a few years later, Arafat again became persona non grata: the Israelis said he was too strong. His successor, Mahmoud Abbas, was considered too weak. So the PLO was unable to achieve any real progress, and the Palestinians did what any people would have done: they voted for the only meaningful alternative. Israel seemed shocked – Hamas in power? – but for the first time, the world backed Israel, joining the boycott and the siege on Gaza.
Hamas is a fundamentalist organisation; by its nature, it finds it hard to compromise. But within it there are reasonable people who want to move forward. It will be hard for Israel to make a settlement with Hamas, but not impossible. And it is worth a try. If I were the Israeli prime minister, I would be ready to land in Gaza tomorrow morning, to meet Hamas and see if there is common ground. The alternative is much worse. The boycott has not weakened Hamas: it is stronger than ever. And at least Hamas is a national and local organisation with national and local, limited targets. With al-Qaeda or the Taliban there will never be a way to peace; Hamas, it must be emphasised, is not like them.
Negotiating with Hamas may lead nowhere. But wasn’t that the result of 15 years of negotiating with the PLO? Perhaps all Hamas wants to see is the destruction of Israel. If so, its position should be challenged. There are historical precedents for the most extreme movements becoming responsible governments, given a fair chance.
The best thing that could happen – for Palestinians, for Israelis and for peace – would be an international effort to re-create a unity government in Gaza and Ramallah. The world and Israel should declare that such a government would be a legitimate partner for negotiations, that it would have full recognition and support. Israel has had a Palestinian partner before; there may be one again. In the current reality, it cannot exclude Hamas.
Gideon Levy is a correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz