Palestinians supporting Hamas chant slogans during a rally celebrating Hamas student supporters winning the student council election at Birzeit University in Ramallah. (photo credit:REUTERS)

Further from peace, closer to reconciliation

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Gershon Baskin believes that if given a clear choice the Palestinians will chose peace, but that is not the choice given to them at the moment. Like in Israel, the public perception is that we need leaders who are better at resistance than at peacemaking.

Hamas and Fatah just ended another round of talks in Cairo on what they call reconciliation. Both sides are reporting that progress was made, but they have not yet reached the point of agreement on several key issues. In May of this year Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashaal signed an agreement orchestrated by Egyptian intelligence. Initially the deal was described as a landmark reconciliation pact aimed at ending their bitter four-year rift.

In fact, the deal was essentially a letter of intention to negotiate a process of reconciliation that would lead to the reunification of the West Bank and Gaza into one territorial unit under one governing power – as was designated in the Oslo agreements. They agreed to negotiate the establishment of a government of technocrats in which there would be neither Fatah nor Hamas representation. The job of that government would be to begin the process of the reconstruction of Gaza and to prepare for new national elections for president and parliament within one year.

The document and the process avoided dealing with the really difficult issues such as the reintegration of the Palestinian security forces into one single force under one political authority.

Hamas has opposed the idea of security coordination with Israel as it is practiced by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. There, the PA has systematically arrested Hamas militants and activists over the past four years and longer. The Gaza forces under the leadership of Ahmad Ja’abri and the Izaddin al-Kassam brigades used their brute force against Fatah security personnel in June 2007 and forced them to flee Gaza.

Neither Fatah nor Hamas can today envision surrendering power to the other or reintegrating their forces.

The “on the surface” difficulty that has been discussed in the media focused on the demand of Hamas to remove Salam Fayyad from the position of prime minister in the new government. Fayyad is an independent and has never been a member of Fatah or Hamas, but Hamas refuses to accept him as prime minister because he is behind the campaign which has led to the arrest of hundreds of Hamas activists in the West Bank.

Fatah, too, is not a big fan of Fayyad because he successfully closed the money faucet to Fatah coffers, but Abbas knows that Fayyad is a key to continuing to receive international donor funds because Fayyad wields the trust of the western countries.

Abbas has also demanded that Hamas adhere to his policy of no more violence. Abbas rejects the armed struggle, was opposed to the militarization of the second intifada under Arafat, and strongly rejects the firing of rockets from Gaza at the Israeli civilian population. Hamas’s adherence to a real cease-fire is a precondition for Abbas to advance the reconciliation process.

HAMAS IS going through real change. The winds of the Arab spring have crossed the Sinai, navigated through Philidephi Corridor, flowed into the underground tunnels and have emerged in Gaza.

Hamas has already been influenced by the changes in the Arab world. They are de facto part of the opposition to the Assad regime in Syria. Tehran offered the organization the opportunity to relocate operations to Iran, but Hamas turned down the offer. Iran has ceased their funding and arming of Hamas. Egypt’s doors are now open to Hamas and soon they will also probably be operating out of Jordan as well – two countries with peace treaties with Israel.

There are demands inside Hamas for democratic elections for their ruling institutions, including the secret Shura Council. Hamas has been enforcing a cease-fire and has been preventing (not with full success) rocket fire into Israel. At this last round of Fatah-Hamas talks in Cairo, Hamas has apparently agreed to accept the adoption of non-violent popular resistance against Israel rather than active violent aggression.

What is happening in Hamas today is a reaffirmation of something that one of the Hamas ideologues explained to me several years ago and I rejected because it went against everything that I knew about Hamas. He said that Hamas is a Palestinian nationalist movement with religious Islamic roots.

Hamas’s goals, he said, are the establishment of a Palestinian state that will be based on Islamic jurisprudence – on Sharia, Islamic law, but it is first and foremost a political movement. I had been taught, and I understood that Hamas was first and foremost a religious movement – an Islamic movement which wanted a pan-Islamic caliphate in the Middle East.

This is incorrect. Hamas’s political evolution is proving that it is the first and not the latter. Religious movements don’t change with the rapid pace of development that is happening in Hamas today.

HAMAS IS not joining the peace camp and still rejects Israel’s right to exist. It is opposed to the idea of a peace treaty with Israel. But according to what I have learned, Hamas has agreed that Abbas can continue to try to negotiate with Israel if Israel agrees to freeze settlement building, and if negotiations are based on the Obama parameters of the 1967 borders with agreed territorial swaps.

Abbas has apparently given up hope regarding the possibilities of positive negotiations with the Netanyahu- Lieberman government, so much so that Hamas feels no threat to their basic positions. They are skeptical that negotiations will even take place.

There is no doubt that the further the peace process seems from the view in the muqata’a (presidential headquarters) in Ramallah, the more likely the reconciliation process between Fatah and Hamas will progress. Hamas leaders have told Abbas that he should convey to the Israelis that there is no reason for Israel to feel threatened by Palestinian reconciliation. They say that when there are two Palestinian governments there is no one to negotiate with because who speaks for the Palestinians?

And when there will be one Palestinian government representing all of the Palestinian people, Israel responds by saying that it couldn’t possibly negotiate with a government in which Hamas takes part. Very convenient.

If the Palestinian reconciliation process continues with the adoption of more practical policies by the Hamas leadership and rank and file, then the process will have positive outcomes for Israel and for the Palestinians. It is time for the Palestinians to go back to the electorate. But Israel should understand that Palestinian elections without a clear choice between peace and conflict will likely end with more radical forces once again winning those elections.

If given a clear choice, I have no doubt that Palestinians will chose peace, but that is not the choice given to them at the moment. Like in Israel, the public perception is that we need leaders who are better at resistance than at peacemaking.

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin is one of the most recognizable names in the Middle East Peace process. His dedication to creating a culture of peace and environmental awareness, coupled with his impeccable integrity, has earned him the trust of the leaders of all sides of the century old conflict. Few people have such far-reaching and positive impacts on promoting peace, security, prosperity and bi-national relationships.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.
Gershon Baskin