Paul Pillar

A Viable Interlocutor

It's only a preliminary agreement, and given the history of discord between the two parties involved, we should not take anything for granted just yet. But think about the opportunities and implications of the announcement Wednesday by Fatah and Hamas that they have agreed to form jointly an interim unity government for the Palestinians. It means the emergence of a single authority that can speak for and negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians, in both the West Bank and Gaza. It means a commitment by both of the Palestinian parties to a democratic process, with an interim government of technocrats to be followed by elections within a year. The arrangement represents the will of the Palestinian people, in the sense not only that it combines the two parties that together reflect most of the spectrum of Palestinian political sentiment but also that the unity agreement itself responds to recent popular demonstrations in Palestinian streets calling for just such an accord. It also has the backing of important regional actors. Such an agreement has long been a project of Saudi Arabia, although a Hamas spokesman gave primary credit to Egyptian mediators who had been assigned to the task since the change of government in Egypt.

And yet, a label gets in the way, and probably will make this promising development go for naught. The label “terrorist” is affixed to one of the two parties in a way that makes it clear that it never, ever could do anything to shed the label, and that it never, ever will be accepted as an interlocutor, or be part of a coalition that will be accepted. The label thus becomes another rationale for continued inaction, stalemate, and occupation. “The Palestinian Authority has to choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu preemptively declared in a televised address. “Peace with both of them is impossible because Hamas aspires to destroy the state of Israel and says so openly.” Actually, Hamas leaders have repeatedly made it clear they are prepared to accept an indefinite truce, or hudna, with Israel. Why should they make any more of a formal declaration than that—how could they be expected to make more of a declaration than that—given that they face an Israel that not only has given no hint of ever being willing to recognize any right of Hamas to exist but also has gone to such lengths to kill the organization that it has resorted to measures that have inflicted substantial suffering even on Palestinians that have nothing to do with the group?

If killing of innocents is what matters, then why should Hamas be out in front in making formal declarations of recognition when Israel has killed far more innocent Palestinians—most notably in Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, as documented in most of the Goldstone report (the portion that Judge Goldstone did not retract)—than anything Hamas has ever inflicted on Israelis? The techniques used by the two sides are different because Israel is the only side that has the power to kill people openly through the used of organized military force.

If the particular killing techniques—clandestine techniques that we can all agree constitute terrorism—are what matter, and if we are going to take a “once a terrorist, always a terrorist” approach such as the one the Israeli government takes toward Hamas, then consider the implications for Israel itself. This would mean that neither the United States, nor Egypt, nor anyone else should ever have dealt with Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Shamir, who were directly, deeply involved in terrorist operations in the 1940s, such as the blowing up of the King David Hotel and the murder of United Nations Middle East envoy Count Folke Bernadotte.

And even if all the worst assumptions about Hamas and its ultimate intentions were to be true, what could possibly be lost through testing those intentions through negotiation with a coalition Palestinian government?

An Obama administration serious about negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian settlement would embrace this latest development in Palestinian politics. Sadly, the opening reaction from the White House was the familiar one of getting in line behind Israel, with an NSC spokesman reapplying the terrorist label on Hamas and saying it would not be a reliable negotiating partner. It looks like this latest chapter will just be another in the political tragedy in Washington that helps to sustain a human tragedy in Palestine.

Image by Thephotostrand