Israel Is Already Talking to Hamas

My suggestion that Hamas should have been invited to Annapolis triggered all sorts of reactions, from agreement to accusations of being a proto-Islamo-fascist-neo-old-Nazi-appeaser. Thanks to Michael D. Fein for pointing out a key, er, point, which I forgot to make: … Read More

By / December 6, 2007

My suggestion that Hamas should have been invited to Annapolis triggered all sorts of reactions, from agreement to accusations of being a proto-Islamo-fascist-neo-old-Nazi-appeaser. Thanks to Michael D. Fein for pointing out a key, er, point, which I forgot to make: that we, the west, cannot claim to be supporting or promoting democracy in the Middle East and then ignore the results when we don't like them.

Anyway, it seems that like it or not (and I do), Israel is already talking to influential figures connected to Hamas. At least according to this report in last week's edition of the London-based Jewish Chronicle, which is usually a well-informed newspaper. I reproduce it here in full, as the website is subscription only:

Secret ‘diplomatic' overtures to Hamas


By Anshel Pfeffer Jerusalem

A diplomatic back-channel is intensifying between Israeli and Muslim religious leaders, including figures identified with Hamas. The aim of the talks, taking place with the full knowledge of the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, is to provide a wider consensus at the grassroots for an eventual accord.

While all eyes have been on preparations for this week's Annapolis summit, talks have continued between senior religious figures on both sides.

Israel has insisted on not talking to Hamas politically until it recognises Israel and renounces violence, but politicians are aware of the need to engage with Hamas on some level.

There is also a need to supply some degree of support for a possible peace deal within the Palestinian public, especially among the more Islamist elements. While a dialogue between Jewish and Muslim leaders has been taking place for over a decade, a senior Israeli government source told the JC this week that "it has greatly intensified over the past six months and is of a much serious order than in the past".

The Muslim sources involved confirmed the talks but refused to comment openly.

However, Rabbi Michael Melchior, the senior Israeli participant – a former minister and currently a Labour MK – said: "There are talks at all levels with Muslim leaders, including those who have influence over Hamas.

"We all feel that in the end, the success or failure of the Annapolis summit and subsequent negotiations, is tied to the goodwill of the public on both sides."

Abbas needed to gain support also within Islamist circles, he added. "Also, for many Israelis the fact that there is no consensus within the Palestinian people causes widespread scepticism and we are trying to disprove that."

Rabbi Melchior said that one aim was for a fatwa by senior Islamic clerics to affirm the right of a Jewish state to exist in the region.

Among others, the leadership of Israel's Islamic Movement and representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are involved. Both have close political and religious ties with Hamas. As Sunnis, they also have a joint interest in minimising Iranian-Shia influence in the region.

Rabbi Melchior's hope for a fatwa by Islamic clerics affirming Israel's right to exist as Jewish state seems over- optimistic. This demand for the Arab countries to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, as well as a sovereign state, is a new and not very welcome twist in the tangled Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. The aim should be for a secure Israel to be living in peace and security next to a viable, sovereign and contiguous Palestine. Adding new demands of Arab recognition for Israel's self-definition as a Jewish state only complicates the issue.

Rami G. Khouri, in yesterday's Beirut Daily Star, has an interesting take on this.

Under the headline 'A Jewish Israel needs a healed Palestine" he argues that

One of the most complex and confounding elements that emerged during the run-up to the Annapolis meeting was the demand by several senior Israelis, and its parallel rejection by Palestinian officials, that the Palestinians recognize Israel as "a Jewish state" as a precondition for the start of talks.

There follows some fairly standard anti-Israel arguments:

The issue of the Jewish nature of Israel is so vital for Israelis that it cannot be left totally hanging in the air, rejected outright, or vaguely held out as an undefined goal or prize to be attained after some future negotiations. We in the Arab world cannot be expected to become instant Zionists, proclaiming Israel as a Jewish state, while it continues to offer the Palestinians and other Arabs brutal and long-term occupation, colonization and theft of our lands, Apartheid-like segregation in the Occupied Territories, second-class citizenship inside Israel, the jailing of over 10,000 activists and militants, routine assassinations, and collective punishment of the entire Gaza population by strangulation combined with slowly reducing its supplies of gas and electricity.

Let's put aside for now the rights and wrongs of that paragraph, and instead look ahead at Khouri's rather imaginative and encouraging proposal. The answer, he says, lies in a Bob Dylan song.

As that great American political philosopher Bob Dylan said in one his war protest songs in the 1960s, "I'll let you be in my dream, if you let me be in yours."

In this case, Israeli and Palestinian national narratives must make room for the other, if either wishes to be acknowledged and legitimized. Mutual denial will only get us to where we are today – perpetual warfare, and chronic mutual national rejection.

Israel ultimately must recognize the crimes it and others committed against the Palestinians, and the unstable conditions created by Palestinian national statelessness must be redressed by statehood and a just, negotiated resolution of the refugee issue. Israel, in the same vein, ultimately must be recognized as a state of the Jewish people, as it defines itself, but this can only be formally done as part and consequence of serious negotiations for a comprehensive, permanent peace that resolves fairly the Palestinian national shattering. Both sides would do well to make these positions crystal clear, so that a Jewish Israel and a reconstituted, healed, wholesome Palestinian state and national community can live normal lives, side-by-side, with equal rights.

I thought this was a remarkable and encouraging article. A columnist in a Lebanese newspaper is arguing for mutual recognition of Israeli and Palestinian narratives and for a Jewish Israel and Palestinian state to live in peace. Call me a hopelessly naive idealist – and I am sure some of you will – but as Mr Zimmerman himself sings: 'The times they are a-changing'.

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