The media is full of conflicting reports about whether or not Hamas is ready to recognize Israel. In some reports, Hamas spokesmen imply that it would. Others reports have them saying "never."
This Ha'aretz story encapsulates this contradiction in its headline: "Hamas accepts 1967 borders, but will never recognize Israel, top official says."
But why does it matter whether Hamas recognizes Israel or not, so long as it agrees to permanently end terror attacks against Israel? Who needs its recognition?
The issue of Hamas recognition of Israel would be valid if Israel was about to enter negotiations with it. Those negotiations would, in fact, be meaningless if Hamas ruled out recognition as an end-result of negotiations, as meaningless as if Israel ruled out withdrawing from the West Bank.
But no one is proposing Israeli/Hamas negotiations. The issue now is whether Israel and/or the United States should consider dealing with a government that includes Hamas. Does the Hamas presence rule out negotiating with that government?
It shouldn't, not when both Fatah and Hamas say that it will be President Mahmoud Abbas, as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who will be in charge of relations with Israel. Abbas is fully committed to peace with Israel. He opposes all forms of violence. His forces have worked with Israel's to thwart terrorism, earning the Israeli government's praise as a "partner for peace."
In fact, since his predecessor, Yasir Arafat's, death Abbas has made the establishment of a Palestinian state at peace with Israel his number one goal. Why does it matter what Hamas thinks about negotiations when it will be the PLO that will be conducting them? All that is necessary from Hamas is that it pledge an end to violence, and keep it
Hamas' presence in the Palestinian government should no more rule out negotiations with it than the presence of Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beteinu party in Netanyahu's coalition makes negotiations with Netanyahu beyond the pale.
Lieberman, after all, opposes negotiations with the Palestinians and favors "transfer," a version of ethnic cleansing, under which Palestinians would be forcibly moved to Arab lands. Unlike Hamas, which would have no role in foreign policy in the proposed unity government, Lieberman is Israel's foreign minister.
But that should not matter, the same way Hamas' presence should not matter. Governments have all kinds of partners in their ruling coalitions; what matters is the policies the coalition adopts -- not the views of its various components.
If Netanyahu and Abbas agree to negotiate, the views of Hamas and Yisrael Beteinu are beside the point, again with the caveat that all forms of violence are utterly and completely proscribed.
That is why both Israel and the United States should drop its demand that Hamas recognize Israel in advance of negotiations. First of all, Hamas is not going to do it. The only card it has in its dealings with Israel is the recognition card and it is not going to play it in advance of negotiations. Demanding that it play it now is like demanding that Israel not freeze, but dismantle, settlements prior to negotiations. It won't happen.
And it doesn't matter.
It appears that the Obama administration may understand this. Asked about the implications of the unity agreement, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was equivocal: "There are many steps that have yet to be undertaken in order to implement the agreement. And we are going to be carefully assessing what this actually means, because there are a number of different potential meanings to it, both on paper and in practice."
Congress, of course, responded the way it usually does, with an AIPAC-authored letter warning Palestinians not to unite. No one could expect anything else in the midst of the pre-2012 fundraising season.
But then Congress has never given much evidence of caring whether the Israelis and Palestinians come to terms while the White House has. Besides, it is the President who needs to worry about the implications of a deepening Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the national interest. Maybe Congress should too, but it rarely, if ever, has.
Unfortunately, if past is prologue, the White House will ultimately join the Israelis in ignoring the possibility that Hamas may be ready to live in peace alongside Israel. It will do the same thing both the Bush and Obama administrations did with the unprecedented Arab League Initiative which offered Israel full peace and normalization in exchange for territorial withdrawal. It will ignore it and, with the Israelis, hope that it goes away.
And it will.
The point is that opportunities for peace vanish if the people who matter refuse to seize them. Had the United States expressed serious interest in the Arab Initiative -- and pushed Israel hard to explore its possibilities -- Israelis and Palestinians might be on their way to peace by now, rather than still languishing in deadly stalemate.
Israel, in particular, needs to recognize that it needs peace to become everything it is capable of being, and that time is not on its side. While the Palestinians are unifying and preparing to declare a state, Israel is now more isolated than ever before in its history. With Mubarak gone, Turkey no longer friendly and the ever-cautious Assad regime on the brink, Israel needs to recognize that the best time for a deal is right now. Ignoring any peace feelers, from anyone, is just plain dumb.