What’s Needed From Hamas

The Washington Post

The image of Ariel Sharon lying comatose in an Israeli hospital has a haunting quality. There is the poignancy of the warrior who fought — occasionally ruthlessly — in all of Israel's wars, incapacitated when he was on the verge of proclaiming a dramatic reappraisal of Israel's approach to peace. And, there is the prospect that this combative general has transcended his implacable past to show both sides the sacrifice needed for a serious peace process.

A serious peace process assumes a reciprocal willingness to compromise. But traditional diplomacy works most effectively when there is a general agreement on goals; a minimum condition is that both sides accept each other's legitimacy, that the right of the parties to exist is taken for granted.

Such a reciprocal commitment has been lacking between Israel and the Palestinians. Until the Oslo agreement of 1993, Israel refused to deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization because its charter required the elimination of Israel and its policies included frequent recourse to terrorism. After Oslo, Israel was prepared to negotiate with the PLO, but only over autonomy of the occupied territories, not sovereignty. After Ariel Sharon became prime minister in 2001, he unexpectedly came to accept the emergence of a Palestinian state, first as a necessity, ultimately as an Israeli strategic requirement. At the moment of his illness, he was preparing to create the objective conditions for such an outcome through unilateral Israeli actions, including withdrawals from Gaza and major portions of the West Bank.

The Palestinians have yet to make a comparable adjustment. Even relatively conciliatory Arab statements, such as the Beirut summit declaration of 2003, reject Israel's legitimacy as inherent in its sovereignty; they require the fulfillment of certain prior conditions. Almost all official and semi-official Arab and Palestinian media and schoolbooks present Israel as an illegitimate, imperialist interloper in the region.

The emergence of Hamas as the dominant faction in Palestine should not be treated as a radical departure. Hamas represents the mind-set that prevented the full recognition of Israel's legitimacy by the PLO for all these decades, kept Yasser Arafat from accepting partition of Palestine at Camp David in 2000, produced two intifadas and consistently supported terrorism. Far too much of the debate within the Palestinian camp has been over whether Israel should be destroyed immediately by permanent confrontation or in stages in which occasional negotiations serve as periodic armistices. The reaction of the PLO's Fatah to the Hamas electoral victory has been an attempt to outflank Hamas on the radical side. Only a small number of moderates have accepted genuine and permanent coexistence.

This is why, heretofore, even seeming compromises were attainable only by verbal gymnastics using adjectives that kept the content capable of incompatible interpretations. The treatment of the refugee issue in the "road map" is a good example. It calls for an "agreed, just, fair, and realistic solution." To the Palestinians, "fair and just" signifies a return of refugees to all parts of former Palestine, including the current territory of Israel, thereby swamping it. To the Israelis, the phrase implies that returning refugees should settle on Palestinian territory only.

The advent of Hamas brings us to a point where the peace process must be brought into some conformity with conditions on the ground. The old game plan that Palestinian elections would produce a moderate secular partner cannot be implemented with Hamas in the near future. What would be needed from Hamas is an evolution comparable to Sharon's. The magnitude of that change is rarely adequately recognized. For most of his career, Sharon's strategic goal was the incorporation of the West Bank into Israel by a settlement policy designed to prevent Palestinian self-government over significant contiguous territory. In his indefatigable pursuit of this objective, Sharon became a familiar figure on his frequent visits to America, with maps of his strategic concept rolled up under his arms to brief his interlocutors.

Late in life, Sharon, together with a growing number of his compatriots, concluded that ruling the West Bank would deform Israel's historic objective. Instead of creating a Jewish homeland, the Jewish population would, in time, become a minority. The coexistence of two states in Palestinian territory had become imperative. Under Sharon, Israel seemed prepared to withdraw from close to 95 percent of West Bank territory, to abandon a significant percentage of the settlements — many of them placed there by Sharon — involving the movement of tens of thousands of settlers into pre-1967 Israel, and to compensate Palestinians for the retained territory by some equivalent portions of Israeli territory. Significant percentages of Israelis are prepared to add the Arab part of Jerusalem to such a settlement as the possible capital of a Palestinian state.

Progress has been prevented in large measure by the rigid insistence on the 1967 frontiers and the refugee issue — both unfulfillable preconditions. The 1967 lines were established as demarcation lines of the 1948 cease-fire. Not a single Arab state accepted Israel as legitimate within these lines or was prepared to treat the dividing lines as an international border at that time. A return to the 1967 lines and the abandonment of the settlements near Jerusalem would be such a psychological trauma for Israel as to endanger its survival.

The most logical outcome would be to trade Israeli settlement blocs around Jerusalem — a demand President Bush has all but endorsed — for some equivalent territories in present-day Israel with significant Arab populations. The rejection of such an approach, or alternative available concepts, which would contribute greatly to stability and to demographic balance, reflects a determination to keep incendiary issues permanently open.

So far Hamas has left no ambiguity about its intentions, and it will clearly form the next government in the territories. A serious, comprehensive negotiation is therefore impossible unless Hamas crosses the same conceptual Rubicon Sharon did. And, as with Sharon, this may not happen until Hamas is convinced there is no alternative strategy — a much harder task since the Sharon view is, in its essence, secular, while the Hamas view is fueled by religious conviction.

Hamas may in time accept institutionalized coexistence because Israel is in a position to bring about unilaterally much of the outcome described here. In principle, there would be much to be said for a comprehensive negotiation, especially if the United States plays a leading role and if other members of the "quartet" — the United Nations, Europe and Russia — that drafted the road map appreciate the outer limits of flexibility. It requires above all a Palestinian leadership going beyond anything heretofore shown and a willingness by moderate Arabs to face down their radical wing and make themselves responsible for a moderate, secular solution.

The danger of a final-status negotiation is that absent a firm prior agreement among the quartet, it might shade into an incendiary effort to impose terms on Israel incompatible with its long-term security and inconsistent with the parameters established by President Bill Clinton at Camp David and in his speech of January 2001 and by President Bush in his letter to Sharon in April 2004. Final-status negotiations in present conditions would probably founder on the underlying challenge described earlier: Do the parties view this as a step toward coexistence or as a stage toward final victory?

Does this mean the end of all diplomacy? Whatever happens, whoever governs Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the parties will be impelled by their closeness to one another to interact on a range of issues including crossing points, work permits and water usage. These de facto relationships might be shaped into some agreed international framework, in the process testing Hamas's claims of a willingness to discuss a truce. A possible outcome of such an effort could be an interim agreement of indefinite duration. Both sides would suspend some of their most intractable claims on permanent borders, on refugees and perhaps on the final status of the Arab part of Jerusalem. Israel would withdraw to lines based on the various formulas evolved since Camp David and endorsed by American presidents. It would dismantle settlements beyond the established dividing line. The Hamas-controlled government would be obliged to renounce violence. It would also need to agree to adhere to agreements previously reached by the PLO. A security system limiting military forces on the soil of the emerging Palestinian state would be established. State-sponsored propaganda to undermine the adversary would cease.

Such a long-term interim understanding would build on the precedent of the Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreement, which has regulated the deployment of forces in the Golan Heights since 1974 amid disputes on a variety of other issues and Syria's failure to recognize Israel.

Whether Hamas can be brought to such an outcome or any negotiated outcome depends on unity among the quartet and, crucially, on the moderate Arab world. It also remains to be seen whether the Israeli government emerging from the March 28 elections will have Sharon's prestige and authority to preserve Sharon's strategy, to which the acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has committed himself. A diplomatic framework is needed within which Israel can carry out those parts of the road map capable of unilateral implementation, and the world community can strive for an international status that ends violence while leaving open the prospect of further progress toward permanent peace.