A Bid for “Regularization” with Hamas: The Benefits, the Costs and the Challenges

Should we negotiate at all with people who want us dead? And if we have no better choices, how do we go about it? The Israeli government is now playing a complex set of multiple chess games, some of which, albeit not all, involve the challenge of such talks:


  • Tomorrow, June 19, will be—if things do not go awry, as they often do in these parts—the first day of a tahdi’ah (“calm”) period negotiated with the Hamas rulers of Gaza through Egyptian mediation. This, in turn, could lead to further indirect talks, in Cairo, over the regularization of the current situation, the gradual opening of some of the border crossings (“lifting the siege,” as Hamas defines it), and the release of the abducted Israeli soldier, Gil’ad Shalit—in return for a significant number of Palestinian prisoners, many with blood on their hands. Israel made major concessions—above all, in accepting this partial package without Shalit’s release, and by the very fact that we now perpetuate Hamas’s power in Gaza—but so did the other side, insofar as they agreed to halt attacks from Gaza while the IDF continues to act against Hamas in the West Bank.
  • This development, with all that it implies, comes as we are in the midst of no fewer than four different negotiations with the Palestinian Authority:


    1. At the top level, between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas, on a framework agreement for the implementation of the Annapolis Process;
    2. In a different setting, between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qurei’ (Abu ‘Alaa), over details of the Permanent Status arrangements;
    3. With the Palestinian security agencies, in talks backed by U.S. military observers, over counterterrorist measures and reduction of the IDF “footprint” on the daily life of West Bank residents;
    4. Under Tony Blair’s auspices, on behalf of the “Quartet,” on economic recovery.


These talks, at least, proceed from the assumption that the present leadership in Ramallah has reconciled itself to peace with Israel, although doubts linger as to whether they have truly accepted our right to exist as a Jewish state.

  • Add to this a strange dance with Syria, whose leaders refuse to talk directly to Israelis, but have greatly benefited internationally by having Turkey run proximity talks with an Israeli team (two of Olmert’s closest associates, Yoram Turbovich and Shalom Turgeman) and a Syrian team in adjacent rooms. It remains to be seen whether Bashar Assad will be in the same banquet hall as Olmert in Paris, on the festive occasion of July 14, when President Nicolas Sarkozy hopes to launch the “Union for the Mediterranean” in the presence of all the relevant leaders—but there are indications that both of them will show up; it is less likely, however, that this would lead to a historic handshake. It is even less likely that this meeting, and the renewed French courtship of Assad after years of icy estrangement, will lead to a Syrian change of heart over its support for terror, its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, and its (now indirect) rape of Lebanon.
  • It is with Hezbollah that Israel (through the agency of a German mediator, Gerhard Konrad, an intelligence operator who keeps out of the limelight) is conducting the most uncomfortable negotiations of all—addressing a “partner” who openly advocates and pursues our destruction—trying to retrieve our abducted soldiers without even knowing whether they are alive or dead (while Hassan Nasrallah uses the body parts of other soldiers killed in 2006, in a truly ghoulish fashion, as bargaining chips or propaganda devices). The deal, which may come soon, will involve the spectacle of joyous Hezbollah supporters and other Lebanese celebrating the release of their “hero,” Samir Kuntar, who used the butt of his rifle to smash the skull of a four-year-old girl. And so it goes, as the late Kurt Vonnegut used to say.


To this list one might add another set of negotiations with people of exterminatory intent—but this time one in which Israel has no overt role: namely, the work of the “Iran Six” (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany as a member of the European Union “troika”) to try to persuade Iran to desist from enriching uranium, in return for a package of economic and diplomatic “incentives.” (This approach is in line with the European practice of “speak softly and carry a big carrot.”) Javier Solana, acting on behalf of the group, recently went to Iran to present the offer, but came back empty-handed. But this may not be the end of the matter, as Tehran left dangling some hints of the prospect for further talks (and then some more, as the centrifuges whirr away).


What do we gain, as Israelis, and more generally as citizens of that part of the world that Islamist totalitarians want to see undone, by engaging in negotiations, no matter how indirect, with the leaders of states and movements that seek our destruction? Some of the benefits of such talks are not difficult to discern. They open up the prospect of the boys coming home, to their long-suffering families, after nearly two years of agonizing uncertainty (and in the process—to be frank—generating highly valuable “positives” for a government in deep crisis). They help enhance stability and predictability, which for a country like Israel, fully integrated into the global economy and dependent upon trade and investment for its remarkable prosperity, are far more important than for the destitute of Gaza or Iran’s dependents in Lebanon.

Above all, they offer an alternative to war—which is always an ugly prospect—and the opportunity for some stretch of normal life for the people of Sderot and the northern Negev, in the same manner that the “regularization” of our tense relations with Hezbollah once again allows for full bed-and-breakfasts in the verdant Galilee this summer. This is not Peace writ large, but many Israelis would settle simply for some quiet.


There is also the hope, forlorn as it may be, that the very act of establishing such mechanisms of coexistence will help erode the burning hatred, and may, over time, generate a low retreat from the crude dehumanization of the “other”—in our case, “the Jews,” which the Hamas TV Bunny promises children he will devour one day—and that the emergence of daily interactions on practical matters will mature into a more stable political climate. In Iran, hopes are pinned on those who may decide—for strategic as well as domestic political reasons—to resist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s “in-your-face” attitudes.


These may well be false hopes: Ideology is stronger in times of crisis than many in the happy West are willing to admit; even “pragmatists” in Iran, such as Ali Larijani (fired by the president as Iran’s nuclear negotiator, but now newly empowered as speaker of the Majlis) or former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, are as committed as the Mahdist visionaries to the goal of wiping Israel off the map.


Moreover, talks, even if unsuccessful, may have the additional benefit of making it easier to hold together the necessary coalitions, without which there is little prospect of effectively isolating the hatred-mongers. Thus, the need to have Egypt on board, and to treat its efforts respectfully, played a major role in the Israeli decision to give the tahdi’ah a chance; similar considerations drive the effort to keep Russia and China (and some Europeans) diplomatically comfortable when it comes to Iran.


And yet we should never ignore the painful costs of such negotiating strategies:


  • First and foremost, perhaps, the danger to our own moral fiber, as we cut deals with murderers (a title well earned by Assad’s regime in Syria no less than by Hamas), engage in dialogue, however indirect, with ruthless terrorists, and accept a ceasefire while our soldiers are still in their hands—raising questions as to the viability of our promise to bring them home. It should come as no surprise that a bitter debate is already raging in Israel over these decisions, not necessarily along traditional political lines: Olmert’s closest political ally, Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon, decried the ceasefire as a victory for radical Islamism.
  • This, indeed, is the most significant aspect of the decision to do business, of any sort, with Hamas and Hezbollah (all the more so if Israel were indeed to agree, in the weeks ahead, to the French initiative to negotiate over the fictitious piece of real estate called Sheba’a Farms, thus vindicating, retroactively, Nasrallah’s claim to be a “liberator of Lebanese land”). The Islamist totalitarian terrorists are gaining ground; the moderates are losing it; and the gains made for the day may well be negated by the price we will pay in the long run.
  • Moreover, it is not only their prestige that Hamas (and Hezbollah) are enhancing by obtaining a ceasefire: They are also using this time to improve their ability to acquire weapons, dig ever deeper, prepare their men, and plan a bitter house-to-house battle. (It was probably in the process of such preparations—setting up booby traps in residential areas—that a major explosion occurred this week in a Gaza neighborhood, killing seven civilians.) Within the IDF, there are voices—at very senior levels—supporting the ceasefire as a temporary device; but many others lament the tahdi’ah as a tragic mistake for which we shall pay in blood when conflict erupts again.


These considerations may or may not outweigh the benefits; this has, by now, become a highly politicized question. But they do point, with great clarity, to what is needed at this time: coherent and consistent leadership—not always easy to find—that will be well-positioned to articulate these complex choices to a confused public; a determined campaign, despite the hostage deals and the ceasefire, to deny Hamas and Hezbollah the legitimacy they crave, and to expose them to the world for what they are; and above all, a strategy designed to make effective use of time so as to be ready for conflict when it comes, and to latch on to our first priorities—namely, as should be stressed again and again, the challenge posed by Iran’s ambitions.


If these ambitions are foiled, all else will become trivial, and retroactively, even useful in “regularizing” other fronts and focusing on the main danger. If they are not, however, the deals and the ceasefire Israel has consented to will turn out to be stepping-stones in the march of Islamist terror toward regional hegemony.

Copyright 2014/2015 AJC