Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Hamas "moderates" don't accept Israel

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Following the Israeli elections and just ahead of US President Barack Obama's first visit to Israel, last Tuesday The New Republic published a lengthy feature examining the current state of the peace process, penned by Ben Birnbaum.

In part, the essay "The end of the two-state solution: Why the window is closing on Middle-East peace", looked at the prospective problem of Fatah uniting with the terror group Hamas, which remains in sole control of Gaza and maintains considerable support among the population in the West Bank.

[There is an] increasingly widespread notion that there are moderates in Hamas who secretly are ready for peace with Israel. In Gaza, I went looking for them.

Birnbaum interviewed two of the most moderate Hamas officials he could find. One, Ahmed Yousef, a former adviser to Haniyeh who runs a think tank called the "House of Wisdom, said that all the Jews who took refuge in Israel over the years must leave.

"All the Jews of Europe should go back to their countries. Jews of the Arab world should go back to their towns and cities in the Arab world. We are ready to help them even, to prepare ships."

Meanwhile, Fawzi Barhoum, one of Hamas's top spokesmen, told Birnbaum all Hamas would be prepared to offer Israel for a pullback to pre-1967 lines and an implementation of the Palestinian "right of return" was a twenty-year truce.

Finally, Birnbaum spoke with Deputy Foreign Minister Ghazi Hamad, another Hamas official that has been previously identified by news organisations as a "moderate" for endorsing a Palestinian state in pre-1967 borders. However, yet he carefully evaded answering a question from Birnbaum about whether Hamas would be content with such a state (or whether he was only accepting it as a stepping stone to a total land grab) or be willing to accept a future peace with Israel. When pressed whether he personally wanted to see peace achieved between Palestinians and Israel, he said unhesitatingly "no".

Birnbaum's stark portrayal of Hamas' "moderates" stands in contrast to the kid-glove media treatment - and in particular Paul McGeough's recent interview with outgoing Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Fairfax media here in Australia - that has bent over backwards to support the notion that Hamas is truly softening its position on Israel, when no evidence of such softening exists.

Sadly, besides his enlightening interviews with Hamas officials, Birnbaum stumbled into a number of regrettable clichés in his article. In particular, his overemphasis of Israel's responsibility for the success or failure of a potential two-state peace deal inevitably left a blind spot in his analysis over the magnitude of the obstacles on the Palestinian side.

The most significant cliché from Birnbaum begins with the title, and here the writer joins a parade of pundits, including Birnbaum's colleague at TNR, Leon Wieseltier only back in December, who have lined up to read the two-state paradigm its last rites.

This is not only an inaccurate and unnecessarily alarmist lament, it is counter-productive and self-defeating for those who support a two-state outcome, like Birnbaum.

As Alan Johnson, the editor of the British journal Fathom, told a group of AIJAC supporters this week in Melbourne:

This language... that time is running out, I think is dangerous language. Because how it's heard from the other side, by the extremists, is if I bide my time, my time will come. It looks as if there is a loss of will, and a loss of confidence in the two-state solution by its Western backers.

Birnbaum cites a number of variables that he says are key to keeping a two-state peace deal viable.

Today, the essential conditions for a peace process remain. Majorities of Israelis and Palestinians continue to support a two-state solution. It remains possible to draw a border that would give the Palestinians the territorial equivalent of the entire West Bank, while allowing Israel to incorporate the vast majority of its settlers. So far, the number of settlers living in communities that would need to be evacuated has not passed the point of irreversibility. Jerusalem is still dividable. Hamas is confined to its Gaza fortress. And Abbas, a Palestinian leader like no other before and perhaps no other to come, remains in office.

With an almost apocalyptic tone, however, Birnbaum then goes on to say that all of these variables are in peril.

By the end of Barack Obama's presidency, however, every one of these circumstances could vanish-and if that happens, the two-state solution will vanish along with them.

The problem with Birnbaum's thesis is twofold. First, he creates the impression that an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians could be reached today, but very possibly not tomorrow. There is a great deal of evidence neither assertion is correct.

Secondly, Birnbaum goes to great lengths to support his contention that Abbas is, at his core, a moderate and a peacemaker that is eager to make a deal, if only Israel would give him the opportunity. The implication one must take from this is that Israel is somehow avoiding making peace with a willing partner.

But are these accurate assessments? Does the opportunity for a two-state solution currently exist and, if so, is that opportunity about to close? Is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' supposed desire to make peace being stymied by Israeli foot-dragging?

As noted columnist Shmuel Rosner reported from the Herzliya Conference, an annual forum on Israeli national policy, the growing consensus among Israeli peace negotiators is quite the opposite to the conclusions reached by Birnbaum.

Likening the prospects for a two state option to a closing window, steadily diminishing over time, is a flawed analogy which ignores the evidence that conditions are unfavorable for a final status agreement of any kind in the short term, for a variety of internal and external reasons.

As Rosner commented:

So, is the two-state solution over? ...
The fact of the matter is that it is totally irrelevant whether the "solution" is going to vanish or not in two years or four years or eleven, if it can't be implemented.

Reflecting on Birnbaum's essay, Alex Massie at the UK Spectator also found that the argument that time is running out for a two-state solution to be problematic and flawed if it failed to recognise that Abbas is unable to deliver a lasting agreement that would be accepted by all Palestinians.

I recall asking a senior Palestinian official if Fatah could make peace with Israel without first defeating or marginalising Hamas. The answer was negative. Nothing seems to have changed since. Abbas and his colleagues may be the best partners for peace Israel can realistically hope for, but they're not strong enough to actually deliver an agreement.
In that respect, Netanyahu's disinclination to trust any Palestinian leader becomes more understandable than is sometimes appreciated outside Israel.

Seth Mandel at Commentary magazine noted that, while Birnbaum's essay acknowledged the threat Hamas poses to any peace agreement, he soft-pedaled the level of support Hamas enjoys among the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza, precisely for its violent and rejectionist ways.

Birnbaum chooses a delicate framing when he references a recent poll that "showed Palestinians preferred Hamas's approach to ending the Israeli occupation over that of Abbas by a two-to-one margin." I'm sure everyone can imagine what "Hamas's approach" would mean.

However, if it is clear that Palestinian leadership cannot deliver a comprehensive agreement today, does this mean a two-state outcome is out of reach permanently? Hardly. What negotiators appear to now be looking towards is a move towards an interim agreement based upon mutual interests that will further narrow the gap between the Israeli and Palestinian positions - in the process creating a Palestinian state with temporary borders - yet leave the most contentious issues, such as Jerusalem, security control of the Jordanian border region, and the Palestinian "right of return" for resolution at a more fortuitous time.

This is the developing strategy that is not only gaining traction in Israel, but Washington, as insider Steve Rosen - in Australia last week as a guest of AIJAC - told audiences in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne.

It is a plan that Obama will likely be selling to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during Obama's visit to the region in the coming days.

Ahron Shapiro