An emerging rift in the Hamas leadership between those bearing the daily brunt of the Israeli assault on the ground in Gaza and those based comfortably in Damascus could offer an opportunity for both Israel and the United States to draw more moderate elements of the Islamist group into a peace process that would ultimately lead to independent Palestinian statehood alongside Israel and enhanced security for the Jewish state.
If history is a guide, the carnage in Gaza could produce the ability to negotiate a long-term Israeli Palestinian arrangement that, if not initially cemented in a peace treaty, would put an end to violent confrontation, focus Israeli Palestinian relations on furthering economic development and kick start a process that would lead over time to formal diplomatic relations and agreed peace.
Recognizing the opportunity takes bold vision and courage and at times is an exercise in reading tea leaves. It is s a tall order for Israeli leaders, competing in forthcoming elections who have staked their immediate political future on breaking Hamas' back. The key to helping Israel and the Palestinians capitalize on what now may be no more than a sliver of hope emerging from the carnage lies in Washington. With President-elect Barack Obama only days away from taking office, it is an opportunity being cautiously discussed among those who may form the core of the new president's Middle East policy team.
The history of Israeli PLO relations offers a roadmap for how death and destruction can be turned into constructive political dialogue and lessons of how to accelerate that transition. Israel's offensive against Hamas, the walk-up to the latest violence, the torturous and convoluted language of Hamas, the Islamists' adherence to Lenin's principle of one step backwards for every two steps forward and the perception that Israelis and Palestinians are locked into a zero-sum game are in their essence mirror images of the violent road that led from secular Palestinian terror to the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
Israel's refusal to deal with the PLO from its inception in 1965 until the late 1980s and its determination to destroy the guerrilla group's ability and will to fight the Jewish state mirrors its effort to break Hamas' back. It is a policy unable or unwilling to recognize subtle shifts in Palestinian attitudes crying out for a helping hand; shifts away from rejection of any long-term, if not permanent arrangement with Israel, towards an accommodation on the principle of live and let live, if not full-fledged peace – a policy that sees declared Palestinian positions as carved in stone rather than fluid, dynamic and malleable and fails to prick through offensive symbolism.
Hard line Palestinian leader George Habash rejected Arafat's initial tenuous steps in 1977 towards acknowledgement of Israel and surrender of Palestinian claims to pre-1967 Israeli territory as well as his efforts to forge a dialogue with US President Jimmy Carter, the first American leader to publicly accept the Palestinians' right to a homeland. Those efforts were couched in language open to interpretation rather than in an unambiguous proposal for peace. In effect they were trial balloons testing whether Israel and the United States would respond to moves suggesting Palestinian compromise.
Much like Hamas's pre-Israeli offensive call for a 10-year truce with Israel – in effect an offer to replace violence with economic and political development that would create the necessary vested interest in peaceful co-existence – Arafat at the time indicated his willingness to accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel, saying the Palestinians were willing to establish "a national authority on any occupied territory from which Israel withdraws or which is liberated." A medical doctor and strategic thinker, who headed the rejectionist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), recognized that Arafat's initiative was likely to change the very essence of the PLO. "If I today accept Arafat's proposal for purely opportunistic tactical reasons, I know that tomorrow this tactic will become my strategic role. If I accept the concept of a national authority today, tomorrow I will recognize Israel and abandon the armed struggle. It's a trap, I have no intention of walking into," Habash told this reporter at the time. Hamas' call for a long-term truce mirrors Arafat's national authority.
Israeli leaders point to Hamas' charter and the virulent and despicable anti-Semitism often expressed by its leaders to argue that the group cannot have a seat at the negotiating table. In the past, Israel employed the same justification for its rejection of the PLO. Yet, symbolism representing a dream rather than a political goal is something Israel shares with Hamas. Israeli maps continue to show the West Bank as part of Gaza despite the government's declared commitment to a two-state solution. An Israeli hawk-turned-dove, Ezer Weizman, a former commander of the Israeli air force, defense minister and president, recognized the insignificance of symbolism as opposed to political process when he stood almost 30 years ago in front of the Likud's emblem incorporating a map of Israel stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River and said: "Everyone has the right to dream, I have the right to dream, they (the Palestinians) have the right to dream."
In the sixteen years from the very first Palestinian nationalist attempts to reach out to Israelis till Arafat's recognition of Israel – attempts that were mired in the blood of innocent victims like the 28 school girls killed in a Palestinian terror attack in 1972 in the Israeli town of Ma'a lot when Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) leader Nayef Hawatmeh sought to reassert his militant credentials after becoming the first Palestinian guerrilla leader ever to address Israelis directly with a call for peace – Israel employed the same brutal military tactics it uses against Hamas to destroy the PLO or break its political will: carpet bombing of urban centers like Beirut, occupation of Arab land as in the case of Lebanon, targeted killings of senior leaders and mass detentions. It took a Palestinian call in 1983 for peace negotiations with Israel and years of secret talks with the United States before Arafat publicly recognized Israel and denounced terrorism in exchange for US recognition of the Palestinian guerrilla movement and the opening of the door for a Palestinian seat at the negotiating table.
The torturous and blood-stained road may well have been significantly shortened had US and Israeli leaders in 1977 called Arafat's bluff and in quiet and secret diplomacy explored the PLO's sincerity and his ability to transform his militant guerrilla movement into a political entity with which Washington and Jerusalem could do business. That would have involved recognition of the need to nurture and encourage a fledgling sprout struggling to balance its legitimacy as a militant proponent of rejectionist armed struggle with the need to produce tangible results that would give Palestinians hope, the ability to build normal and prosperous lives and claim that they had achieved national aspirations. Hamas' call for a long-term truce amid its firing of primitive rockets into southern Israel offers another opportunity to nudge Palestinian militants who enjoy credibility and popular support down a road they hesitantly signaling they would be willing to travel. With Palestinian surveyor's estimating the damage to Gaza's infrastructure at $1.4 billion, Hamas more than ever will need in the wake of a ceasefire to focus on the strip's economic and social recovery from the Israeli offensive.
Perhaps because the PLO had effectively been moved away from Israel's immediate borders with their expulsion to Tunisia in Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the subsequent taking of matters in their own hands with the first intifada in 1987 by Palestinians living under Israeli occupations, Arafat moved albeit cautiously forward with his efforts to achieve his goal of becoming the accepted Palestinian negotiating partner. Once there, he proved incapable of finalizing a deal with Israel that would have involved full-fledged peace and the creation of a viable, independent and sovereign state. His inability to capitalize on Israeli proposals put forward over a period of more than a decade coupled with his refusal to surrender personal power to the strictures of a state bureaucracy and widespread corruption in the ranks defeated the very purpose of the road he had embarked on in 1977.
If the 1982 war and the intifada opened the door to Israeli negotiations with a credible Palestinian counterpart, the war in Gaza despite efforts to arrange a ceasefire threatens to close that door. With Egypt nearing agreement on a ceasefire, the roles between Israel and Hamas are reversing. Historically, Israel has sought long-term arrangements cemented in peace treaties with its Arab enemies that guaranteed peace, stability and security while Palestinians were at best willing to accept short-term arrangements in advance of a new round of confrontation. In the current negotiations, Hamas has dropped its proposal for a 10-year truce and is says it is willing to accept only a one-year silencing of the guns at best while Israel is now willing to entertain a 10-year truce rather than a definitive solution of its dispute with the Palestinians.
The door to a long-term truce that would produce the economic, political and social dynamics over time for a definitive Israeli Palestinian peace treaty may no longer be as wide open as it was, but it also has not been slammed closed. It offers Obama the opportunity to apply his slogan, 'Change We Can Believe In,' to the Middle East in a way that would engage credible Palestinian representatives as well as Israel. That may be easier said than done. It involves recognition of the altered balance of power in Palestinian politics with a weakened Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas and a strengthened Hamas, reconciliation between the feuding Palestinian factions, negotiation of a long-term ceasefire as a first step towards gradual achievement of real peace, tangible improvement of the lives of ordinary Palestinians, including economic development, lifting of debilitating Israeli restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinians on the West Bank and thye flow of goods into Gaza, a halt to Jewish settlement of Palestinian territory and the nurturing of a credible and empowered Palestinian government that can cater to its people's needs.
As the ceasefire negotiations progress in Cairo, there is little doubt that in Palestinian eyes Hamas will emerge victorious by virtue of its sheer survival as a defiant Palestinian force. Israeli hopes that the war may have shattered Hamas' political cohesion so that it can be replaced by more moderate Palestinians – either the Palestinian Authority or a new entity that emerges from Gaza's rubble – are likely to be dashed. More likely is that if Hamas is unable to recover its cohesion and capitalize on its stature, it will be replaced by more militant Islamists who see the war in Gaza as evidence that armed struggle and terrorism are the only way to realize Palestinian aspirations. Whichever way Palestinian politics develop, failure to engage Hamas now will only lead the Middle East further down the road of escalating violence, destruction and death – an unnecessary cycle of violence that if history is a guide demonstrates that what will be achievable at the end of that cycle will fall short of what could have been achieved today.