Published: February 24 2006
When Rawhi Fatouh, the outgoing speaker of the Palestinian parliament, left the new assembly’s opening session last Saturday, he primed television crews to be on hand as he transferred the keys of his government-issue black Mercedes to Abdel-Aziz Dueik, his Hamas successor. It was a dig at the victorious Islamists who, having campaigned against profligacy and privilege, must now prove that once in office, they can be as zealously upstanding in defence of Palestinian rights as they were in opposition.
Mr Fatouh’s defeated Fatah party is not alone in hoping that the responsibilities of power will tame or, better still, undermine a movement that has sniped from the sidelines for the past decade at a Palestinian Authority that it now governs.
As it struggles to formulate a coherent response to the Hamas triumph, the international community is also counting on economic realities to temper the extremism of a movement that still harbours a desire to destroy its Israeli neighbour.
Among the conditions that western governments have set on direct aid and support to the PA is that Hamas should recognise Israel. In the unlikely event that Hamas bowed to the pressure, what would be the consequences? Would Israel return to the negotiating table from which it has been absent for five years? Would the government of Ehud Olmert feel honour-bound to meet an international legal obligation to withdraw from territory occupied in 1967?
If Palestinian recognition of Israel were the only key to resolving the Middle East conflict, then it would have been over almost two decades ago when Yassir Arafat declared that his movement’s claim to the whole of historic Palestine was “caduc”. Arafat’s characteristically theatrical adoption of an obscure French legal term meaning expired or no longer relevant was as close as he would go at the time – May 1989 – to accepting that a long-held dream of eradicating Israel was dead.
It was, however, the start of a process whereby the mainstream of the Palestinian movement acknowledged Israel’s existence and, through the Oslo peace accords, went on to establish an autonomous Palestinian Authority that it believed would lead to statehood.
Hamas was not alone in denouncing Arafat for playing the trump card of recognition with little but vague promises in return, while many Israelis believe that the Palestinians were never sincere in their acceptance of the Jewish state. This cycle of mistrust is unlikely to be broken by a simple declaration from Hamas that it has changed its mind.
The Palestinians believe, with some justification, that Israelis do not accept they have an inherent right to any of the land. Even Mr Olmert, denounced as a leftist by those in Israel who fear he is about to cede more Jewish territory, said on the eve of Hamas’s election victory: “We firmly stand by the historic right of the people of Israel to the entire Land of Israel. Every hill in Samaria and every valley in Judea,” he said, referring to the West Bank, “is part of our historic homeland.”
Mr Olmert made clear that the only reason Israel was prepared to accept the creation of a Palestinian state was for its own benefit. A Jewish majority in that same Land of Israel could not be assured as long as Israel maintained its control over the Palestinian population of the occupied territories. Just as Israelis had been forced to abandon some of their cherished national dreams, so would the Palestinians, he said.
It is an option that pragmatists in Hamas have not entirely ruled out. As one of its leaders graphically stated, it is difficult to ignore the existence of a neighbour who drives his tanks down your streets. But, according to Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader in Gaza, it would be folly to recognise an Israeli state without knowing in advance what its borders were.
Mr Olmert had already pledged to fix Israel’s borders, unilaterally if necessary, even before Hamas came to power. The victory of the Islamists reinforces his argument that he has no partner for peace as he proceeds to consolidate Israel’s hold on West Bank settlements and the Jordan valley.
“For those in Israel who want to continue unilaterally, the Hamas victory is a great opportunity,” said an official close to Mahmoud Abbas, the PA’s Fatah president. “But if we play it right, it could work. Mr Abbas will be able to step in like a benevolent father to help Hamas when it blunders.”
If the international community wants to reinforce Mr Abbas, it could offer more carrots and wield less stick. It is right to insist on Hamas recognition of Israel, however futile the demand. But more could be done to convince Palestinians that such recognition would bring a reward. The danger is that the focus on Hamas will allow Israel to pursue a one-sided agenda, based purely on its own security concerns, that will leave the conflict to smoulder indefinitely.
Even if, as seems likely, a majority of the Quartet – the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia – spurns Hamas, it must at least give Mr Abbas the opportunity to persuade his constituency that the door has not closed for good on a negotiated and even-handed settlement.
The writer is the FT’s Jerusalem bureau chief