The Israel and Hamas Untenable Status Quo

07/18/2011 01:38 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2011

Israel and Hamas are currently locked in a perpetual standoff. Hamas is emboldened by the flurry of international attention on the situation in Gaza, despite the improved conditions following the ease of the blockade by Israel after the first flotilla episode and Egypt's opening of the border crossing. The Hamas-Fatah unity talks, currently on hold and in danger of collapse, have aided the transformation of the international perception of Hamas as a terror organization to that of a legitimate political party. So too has Hamas' refrain from violence against Israel. However, without an outright rejection of terror and recognition that Israel cannot be destroyed, Hamas' growth as a political force for the Palestinian people will remain limited and potentially mired in failure. Similarly, without Israel recognizing that lasting security is unlikely unless Hamas is included in the political process, efforts to advance a two-state solution will be fruitless. Overcoming these obstacles will require new thinking to find a formula that enables each side to save face in altering their positions to move forward in a political process.

Hamas has been strengthened by the international community increasingly discarding the notion that it is a terror organization and realizing that it must, nevertheless, be brought into a political process if efforts to achieve regional peace and security are to succeed. The recent attempt to deliver aid via a second flotilla, (and when that failed via a 'fly-tilla') was not about delivering aid, but rather about demonstrating solidarity with the people in Gaza. Despite its failure to reach Gaza, the international attention paid to the activists in-and-of itself is a victory for Hamas' portrayal of the people of Gaza as innocent victims of cruel Israeli oppression. Gaza's economy jumped by 16 percent at the end of 2010 after Israel eased the blockade last summer, but nearly 70 percent of the population still relies on handouts and nearly half of the work force remains unemployed. Today, the focus on Gaza is on the economic situation, not on Hamas' rejection of Israel's right to exist or its refusal to release captured Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit.

Hamas has been further strengthened by the ongoing Palestinian unity talks, which it has entered into without relinquishing any of its avowed positions to oppose peace with the State of Israel. Hamas' chief, Khaled Mashaal has in the past told reporters that he would be willing to accept a two-state formula along the 1967 lines, but without acting on it to bring about conflict resolution. Meanwhile, Hamas members have denigrated international efforts to gain Palestinian statehood at the United Nations and remained fiercely opposed to Israel's existence. These inconsistent postures have enabled Hamas to navigate international circles with the aura of possibility that it could be a partner for peace, even without espousing a unified, clear position or easing its hard-line stance as a 'resistance movement' against Israel. This ambiguous posturing causes Hamas, like its partner in arms Hezbollah, to force Israel to spend disproportionately on defense and maintain a state of readiness with ever escalating debilitating financial and human cost.

However, Hamas' recent gains may be reaching an apex. First, the Hamas-Fatah unity agreement is in jeopardy today over Hamas' refusal to keep Salaam Fayyad as prime minster and to adopt a technocratic government that might be acceptable to the Palestinian Authority's Western donors. A recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research indicated that 61 percent of Palestinians want "the new government of reconciliation to follow the peace policies and agendas of President Abbas and the PLO rather than Hamas." Another poll by the Center indicated that 45 percent prefer Salaam Fayyad to remain prime minister as opposed to only 22 percent support for Hamas' candidate, Jamal Khodari. Since nearly 60 percent of the Palestinian public expects the unity agreement to succeed, Hamas risks being blamed for its failure.

Further, Hamas' recent downplaying of efforts to gain a unilateral declaration of statehood at the United Nations is inconsistent with Palestinian public opinion. A week ago, Hamas' Ismail Haniyeh called the plan for statehood "a mere mirage," but 65 percent of the Palestinians support the move. Whereas unity talks were initially seen as a mechanism to improve the prospects of the UN move, Palestinians are increasingly realizing that Hamas could be placing the UN effort -- and future international aid -- in serious jeopardy. Finally, Hamas has been weakened by the uprising in Syria which has thrust its patron, Bashar Assad in a fight for the survival of his regime, which has consistently provided political and logistical support for the organization and asylum to its leaders.

Most importantly, Hamas' growth is stuck between two realizations. The first realization is that under no circumstances can Israel be destroyed. Even more, Hamas knows that should it reengage in a campaign of terror against and seriously threaten Israel, Jerusalem will not hesitate to respond by decapitating its leadership in an effort to wipe out the movement's core structure, regardless of the international condemnation that would likely follow. Furthermore, as long as Hamas wears the 'terror group' label assigned to it by the Western world, its ability to shape the future of Palestine remains handicapped. The second realization is that Hamas knows that it too cannot be destroyed. Indeed, although Hamas' public support has been steadily declining during the past several years and it may not garner more than 25 percent of the votes if elections were held today, it maintains a strong grass-roots movement. Whether through a unity government or free and fair elections, Hamas and its ideology of 'resistance' will persist as a potent force in the Palestinian body politic. The question facing Hamas today is how to reconcile these two contradictory realities: that the organization will endure, but its ultimate objective -- the destruction of Israel -- will never be fulfilled.

A similar question regarding Hamas faces Israel. While previous and current Israeli governments know that it can wipe out Hamas' leadership, it cannot destroy its ideology, and as long as it remains on the outside of the political process, it can spoil any Israeli efforts to advance negotiations with its Fatah rival. Israel has succeeded in containing Hamas' violent activity, including rocket attacks, due to its considerable deterrence, but it is at least in part constrained by the international opprobrium that has followed its blockade of Gaza, which has further served to strengthen Hamas' position in the international arena.

The result of this policy limbo gripping both sides is a hardened status quo. Each side remains vigilant and troubled by the actions of the other, but is unable to simply wish their adversary away. At the same time, neither Israel nor Hamas is prepared to publicly recognize this fact and adjust their policies accordingly. Therefore, instead of re-framing their policies and public narratives, each side is merely treading water by maintaining these contradictory postures. What is needed is a face-saving way out of this deadlock. The status quo will not produce peace or security. If Israel wants peace with Palestinians based on a two-state solution, now or in future, it simply cannot make peace with half of the Palestinians and leave Gaza out of the equation. Even if the Palestinian Authority manages to gain recognition without unity agreement in place, a divided Palestinian state is not a viable option. Meanwhile, if a unity government is reached, the United States and a number of European nations will have the pretext to oppose the UN initiative on the grounds that Hamas has not met the three Quartet conditions: renouncing violence, recognizing Israel and accepting past agreements.

As a result, on the surface the status quo between Israel and Hamas appears sustainable for the foreseeable future. However, the elevated expectations caused by the lead up to the United Nations General Assembly, the revolutions of the Arab Spring, and the decrease of Hamas' marginalization internationally could all lead this status quo to be shattered come October. If Hamas loses any potential of becoming a player in shaping the Palestinian national cause, they are likely to upset the process in order to maintain their relevance. That is why new thinking must be applied, in order to create a face-saving formula that will enable each side to adjust its positions.

The long dormant Arab Peace Initiative could serve as the basis for such a formula. The Initiative could enable Hamas to soften its stance on the political process with Israel by aligning itself with the stated position of the entire Arab league, but without having to relent on its long-held opposition to the three Quartet conditions. In turn, the Israeli public, notwithstanding the objections of the Netanyahu government, should be persuaded to accept the centrality, and in fact the indispensability, of the Arab Peace Initiative in principle as the basis for renewed negotiations with all who support it as a framework for talks. Israel could do so with its own reservations that aspects of the Initiative, like the ultimate state of Palestinian refugees and secure borders, as in the past, must be negotiated. In fact, doing so could provide Israel with a more generic formula for talks than the security and borders-first approached advance by President Obama. The acceptance of the Arab Peace Initiative by either side would be a game-changer that could inject life into the Palestinian movement on the one hand, as well as represent the Israeli initiative that many are calling for on the other. Creating such a game-changer will not only require political leadership on the part of Israel and Hamas, but also outside pressure and encouragement.

The United States, with the support of the EU, should be pressing Israel to adopt this formula. Bearing in mind that the Netanyahu government is not likely to make any progress toward a two-state solution, these efforts must begin now in preparation for the next Israeli elections in late 2012. To be sure, educating the Israeli public about the critical importance of the API and the perilous impasse the Netanyahu government has created would engender vitally important discussion in Israel about the desperate need for a change of direction.

In the same token, the Arab states, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, (Egypt because of its proximity, centrality in Arab affairs and security interests, and Saudi Arabia because it's the custodian of Sunni Islam) must press Hamas to do the same. Given Hamas' increasingly precarious situation in wake of what is happening from within and outside the organization on a regional scale, its leadership is looking also for a face-saving way out. The API could offer Hamas exactly just that, not only because it allows the organization to join the Arab fold but also because of their changing posture toward a solution to their conflict with Israel, which has become increasingly closer to the API. As I indicated in previous writings, Turkey too could play a significant role in persuading Hamas to make the leap at this particular juncture.

Since the Gaza war, Israel and Hamas have been engaged in a chess game, with each side making marginal gains, and losing critical pieces vis a vis the other side. Today, they are in a deadlock, with neither side able to put the other in checkmate. The Gaza war showed clearly that Israel cannot destroy Hamas, just as it showed that Hamas' acts of terror have enormous consequences for the Palestinian people. While the current standoff appears sustainable, it is not. Beginning a detente between the two sides will require finding a common denominator that could be utilized as a face-saving measure for adapting positions without appearing to have relented to the demands of the other side.

The Arab Peace Initiative offers many common denominators that both Israel and Hamas can relate to and accept. Although Israel and Hamas today are not politically prepared to accept it, their friends and allies in the United States and the Arab world and Turkey respectively should begin pressing them to prepare to do so. Otherwise a dangerous, violent explosion could occur as the current status quo is not sustainable and undoubtedly will unravel. The only question is when?

*A version of this article was published in the Jerusalem Post on July 15th, 2011 and is available online here: http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Opinion/Article.aspx?id=229414