Wednesday, February 07, 2007
Should Hamas recognise Israel?
In many ways this is a silly question. It is like asking if the ant should recognise the elephant's right to exist!
Yet, Israel and the so-called Middle East Quartet, Russia, the United Nations, the European Union and the United States, have been demanding not only that the ant should recognise the elephant's right to exist but also to live by its shadow, blindfolded.
Let us be clear on the history. Palestine was a British mandated territory from the end of the First world War to 1947. The UN partitioned the territory in 1947 into a Jewish state and an Arab state (resolution 181). Israel established itself in 1948 on the land alloted to the Jewish state, which amounted to 56% of the territory, or 1393 km². To be precise, Israel never officially defined its own borders and went on to grab a bit more land than it was entitled to under the partition plan. The Arabs never accepted the partition and went on to wage wars against the Jewish state, most of which they have lost together with a great deal more territory. Interestingly, Iran, India and Yugoslavia, which had taken part in the 11-neutral country committee that investigated the situation in Palestine before the UN decison, wanted to create a single federated state for Arabs and Jews. They did not think the partition would be a good recipe for peaceful coexistence in the long term or create viable economies. So they voted against the partition along with the Arab states.
Hamas's charter does not recognise Israel's right to exist, not even within its 1947 borders. On the other hand, it is not entirely clear which Israel the Quartet wants Hamas to recognise. The territory that Israel now controls is 15 times bigger (20,770 km²) than the original land alloted to it in 1947. Israel has captured these lands in battles with the Arabs, annexed them and established permanent settlements over them. Morality and justice aside, trying to pick though the 60-year conflict between Arabs and Israelis to apportion blame and then attempt to roll back history does not take us very far. There are winners and losers in most battles. The Arabs have lost. Rolling back history can only be done through patient negotiations and building trust over decades, or fighting more battles with the risk of losing more territory and lives.
Nonetheless, neither Hamas nor any other Palestinian group is under any moral or political obligation to recognise Israel's right to exist outside of its 1947 borders. The PLO (Fateh faction) may have signed agreements implicitly or explicitly recognising Israel's control over a wider territory, but Hamas, as a democratically elected government, still representing more than 50% of Palestinians, is entitled to take its own stand and, if necessary revoke any past PLO-Israel agreements (just as Israel has effectively done by building the separation wall). This line of thinking may be dogmatic, impractical and dangerous but it is entirely logical, just and legitimate. One has to start from what is logical, just and legitimate and proceed to making compromises if necessary.
Hamas is making a fatal strategic error in failing to recognise Israel's right to exist within its 1947 borders. Just like the Arab countries which never accepted the UN partition and set out to destroy the Jewish state, Hamas is criminally selling an impossible dream to its young and desparate followers that jihad, suicide bombing and killing Israeli settlers would win back lands and secure a lasting peace. Hamas is alienating the world against it, dividing the Palestinian people and allowing the regimes in Syria and Iran to manipulate it for their own political ends. Yet, Prime Minister Hanniyeh, despite his rhetoric, is a pragmatic man compared to the Damascus-based political leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, who is stubborn and ideologically driven. Ideological and fundamentalist religious leaders pose a grave danger to their own people because they can lead them to destruction, have an inflated view of their own strength, do not know how to engage with their opponents and have a predictable one-track mind that can be easily manipulated by bigger powers. The Arab world has had more than its fair share of leaders like him since 1947.
Mashaal has given Israeli hardliners a perfect excuse to block any progress towards a two-state solution (no matter how illusory such progress might have been in the first place) and continue to expand settlements and capture territory with the separation wall. On the other hand, Israel and the Quartet have absolutely no right to dictate to Hamas that it should recognise Israel's right to exist outside of its 1947 borders. They have essentially sent a hypocritical message to the Palestinians that "you can vote for whoever you like, but if we don't approve of the winner we don't have to deal with them". Israel has gone further by seeking to destabilise and bring down the Hamas government. Every inch of territory captured after 1947 is therefore legitimately open to negotiation, even if takes 200 years to achieve a settlement. In reality, Israelis and Palestinians who care about their children and value life, would likely come to their senses and compromise in their lifetime. Any reasonable, pragmatic and fair-minded person would wish no less for both peoples.
Mashaal and Hanniyeh (representing Hamas) and President Abbas (representing Fatah) are now locked in discussions in Saudi Arabia in an effort to avert a Palestinian civil war. Syria and Iran have pressured Mashaal against compromising and Israel and the Quartet have called on Hanniyeh to recognise Israel, renounce violence and respect previous agreements signed with the PLO, as a price for resuming peace talks.
Hanniyeh needs to show leadership, courage and wisdom by recognising Israel within its 1947 borders immediately. He should ban and punish any attacks against Israeli civilians anywhere and start negotiating with Ehud Olmert as part of a Palestinian national unity government. Doing so would legitimise Hamas in the eyes of most countries of the world. But many would regard this as a ridiculous negotiating position for Hamas to take when the PLO has effectively accepted Israeli control of territories captured in 1967 and beyond, as envisaged in the road map. Israeli hardliners would also try to torpedo any peace negotiations. Nevertheless, compromises are needed on both sides and Israel should not get away with thinking that success on the battle field and expanding illegal settlements buys her long term security or legitimacy. The road map itself is a ridiculous plan that cannot possibly withstand the test of time and Hamas would be perfectly entitled to reject it and seek to negotiate more economically and politically viable alternatives. No matter what peace strategy Hamas and Fateh may be able to formulate, the strategy must be based on a clear commitment to a negotiated settlement and non-violence (except in self defence against unprovoked attacks by the Israeli military).
The real battle is to win over world opinion while making it easier for Israeli moderates to win elections so they can persuade the majority of Israelis to trade viable land for peace and security. The alternative for Hamas is to continue to get in the elephant's way, blindfolded, and get trampled to death.