At some point Israel and Hamas are going to negotiate a ceasefire, and the question then becomes how to ensure that it holds and, more importantly, that Israel and Hamas move away from fighting a war every few years and toward a viable long term political solution. One of the sacred cows of the Israel-Palestinian conflict is that in order for there to be a lasting peace there needs to be Palestinian unity so that Palestinians can speak with one voice. Israel has used the rift between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority as an excuse in the past not to negotiate because it viewed negotiations under those circumstances as a pointless exercise, and certainly having Hamas and the PA as separate and adversarial entities has complicated matters. Writing in the New Republic, Nathan Brown examines the ways in which Hamas might eventually moderate and lands on the issue of reconciliation as paramount:
The most promising way to force Hamas to become more moderate is to force it to be more responsive to its own public. (As a leading Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian in neighboring Egypt told me when I asked him whether Hamas would ever accept a two-state solution: “They will have to. Their people will make them.”) And the most promising way to ensure such responsiveness is to speed up the reconciliation between the governments in the West Bank and Gaza, so that those governments can agree to hold elections rather than jealously hold on to their own fiefdoms in a fit of paranoia. But that, in turn, will require that Israel and the international community show a greater willingness to countenance Palestinian reconciliation.
The thing is, it seems increasingly clear to me that Hamas moderation belongs in the same category as the yeti and the Loch Ness monster; its existence has long been rumored and many have claimed to have spotted it but no proof of it actually exists. Brown himself grants that the reconciliation gambit is a long shot but that it is the only option left as all the others have been exhausted, as he catalogs how the lack of Palestinian elections, the Hamas-Fatah civil war in 2007, and Hamas’s desire to keep an iron grip on Gaza have combined to destroy any hopes for Hamas moderation. If the fact that Hamas for much of this year was not itself shooting rockets at Israel but was allowing other more extreme groups to do so is touted as a sign of moderate pragmatism, then the term has lost all semblance of real meaning. The challenges from Palestinian Islamic Jihad and smaller Salafi groups in Gaza mean that Hamas must remain an intransigent foe of Israel in order not to lose credibility, as has happened to the PA in the West Bank, and outside of Hamas mounting a large scale military campaign to destroy these groups and risking a civil war in Gaza, this domestic political environment is not going to be altered. Everyone can hope that having to govern Gaza is eventually going to turn Hamas into a more moderate group, but it seems to be foolish to have any remaining reasonable expectation that this will occur.
So this being the case, what happens if Hamas and the PA reconcile? Rather than Hamas moderating, the likely scenario is that it transforms the PA rather than the PA transforms it. The PA’s credibility is gone, it is viewed as inept and incompetent, and as violent protests break out across the West Bank despite Mahmoud Abbas calling for peaceful demonstrations, it is difficult to conclude anything other than that the PA is out of touch and on the brink of collapse. While Hamas shoots rockets at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and generally terrorizes southern Israel, Abbas spends his time trying to eliminate domestic opponents, feuds with his own prime minister Salam Fayyad, and mounts ineffective and symbolic Palestinian statehood bids at the United Nations. While the PA has basically delivered nothing but deferred promises, Hamas is seen as the hero of the Palestinian resistance standing up to Israel, and its popularity in the West Bank is naturally growing as a result. This is, of course, partially Israel’s doing as it has done little to prop up Abbas and has not made much of an effort to give West Bank Palestinians hope that the peace process is still alive. If these two groups reconcile, is there really much doubt which one is going to have the upper hand and swallow the other? I think that this is a recipe for a stronger non-pragmatic Hamas rather than a more pragmatic and conciliatory Hamas. This is compounded by the support Hamas receives from Turkey, Qatar, and Egypt, who have yet to demonstrate that they have actual sway over the group, or that even if they do that they want it to moderate its stance toward Israel.
Given all of the above, I think rather than encourage a rapprochement and then hope to deal with a newly pragmatic Hamas, Israel’s best bet is to actually discourage reconciliation at all and officially recognize the reality on the ground, which is that we are dealing with two separate and independent Palestinian entities, each with their own territory and set of political institutions. Up until now, Israel has essentially taken the position that Hamas is an illegitimate entity and that it hopes the PA eventually returns to power in Gaza, but it’s time to drop this fantasy. Hamas is here to stay, and acknowledging that and then coming up with long term strategies to deal with the West Bank and Gaza separately is the next step. This then leads to a two-fold strategy that only works if both parts are carried out. First, rather than threaten to collapse the PA if it goes to the UN again and treat Abbas and Fayyad as if they are mere inconveniences to be ignored, actually work to establish a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority so that the PA can claim to have accomplished something by working with Israel. Second, treat Gaza as a completely separate entity and have the U.S. lean on Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar – all of whom are ostensibly U.S. allies in the region – to keep Hamas in line, but this time with the added force of arguing that Israel actually is willing to truly work with a peaceful Palestinian partner. This second part only works if the first part is there too, since otherwise the argument to keep Hamas isolated falls apart. If the Turks and the Egyptians can actually work to change Hamas’s behavior, great. If not, hopefully an actual Palestinian state in the West Bank will lead Palestinians in Gaza to reject the Hamas approach on their own once they see that there is a genuine alternative.
Is this actually viable? I honestly don’t know. It requires Abbas to come to the negotiating table without a list of preconditions and demands, requires Israel to actually do something about the settlements in the West Bank, and requires Hamas’s Sunni patrons to exert what sway they have and actually be more convincing and forceful than the prospect of amassing more Iranian Fajr-5 missiles. That’s a lot of big ifs, but if the Palestinians living in Gaza can actually see that there are tangible benefits to the more pragmatic PA approach, then maybe Hamas actually will be forced to be more responsive to its own public and Israel can finally stop pretending that there is a permanent military solution to dealing with Hamas.