The issue is not whether Hamas recognises Israel

By Henry Siegman

Financial Times

8 JUne 2006

What hope there may still be for avoiding a complete meltdown in the Palestinian occupied territories, not to speak of the hope of ever achieving a two-state solution, lies not with the initiative by Mahmoud Abbas,Palestinian Authority president, to put the two-state formula to a popular referendum but with the ruling Hamas movement's refusal to play by Israel's old rules. Those rules have in effect eliminated the prospect of viable Palestinian statehood and were intended to achieve that end.

Hamas is determined that Palestinian recognition of Israel will not come about without Israel's recognition of Palestinian national rights, and that only an end to the occupation and Israel's acceptance of the principle that no changes in the pre-1967 borders can occur without Palestinian agreement (a principle enshrined in the road map that Israel pretends to have accepted) will constitute such recognition.

The most widely respected Israeli security expert, Efraim Halevy, believes Israeli and American efforts to overthrow the Hamas regime are misguided. A hawk who headed Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, under five prime ministers and served as Ariel Sharon's national security adviser, Mr Halevy is convinced these efforts damage Israel's vital interests.

His view shocked members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations when Mr Halevy addressed them recently in New York. He has held it for some time. In September 2003, he said Israel should signal to Hamas that if it "enter[s] the fabric of the Palestinian establishment, we will not view that as a negative development. I think that in the end there will be no way around Hamas being a partner in the Palestinian government". At that time, when Hamas had the support of only a fifth of the Palestinian population, Mr Halevy said: "Anyone who thinks it is possible to ignore such a central element of Palestinian society is simply mistaken." How much more so today, when Hamas enjoys majority support.

Asked last week on Israeli television how he could justify advocating engagement with a terrorist organisation that does not recognise Israel's right to exist, Mr Halevy ridiculed the stale assumptions that underlie that question. Do not look at Hamas's rhetoric, he said, look at what it does: Hamas declared a truce 18 months ago and has committed no terrorist acts against Israel since. In spite of Hamas's refusal to change its theological rejection of Israel, Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister in the Hamas-led government, ordered his ministers to seek practical co-operation with their Israeli counterparts. Mr Haniyeh also confirmed that Hamas's self-declared truce is open-ended.

Why should Israel care whether Hamas grants it the right to exist, Mr Halevy asked. Israel exists and Hamas's recognition or non-recognition neither adds to nor detracts from that irrefutable fact. But 40 years after the 1967 war, a Palestinian state does not exist. The politically consequential question, therefore, is whether Israel recognises a Palestinian right to statehood, not the reverse.

Using Mr Halevy's criterion of looking at what a government does, not what it says, it is clear that - its many declarations to the contrary not withstanding - Israel does not recognise a Palestinian right to statehood in the West Bank and Gaza. The position of Ehud Olmert's government is that Israel's right to annex at will any parts of Palestinian territory east of the pre-1967 borders supersedes any Palestinian rights. This is implicit in the Israeli government's decision that a Palestinian government that even wishes to place on the agenda of a peace negotiation the territorial changes made unilaterally by Israel in the West Bank, or the question of the Palestinian refugees, cannot be a partner for peace.

Israel's "concessions", such as the withdrawal from Gaza and isolated West Bank settlements, are intended to serve narrow Israeli interests. As noted by Peace Now's Settlement Watch, Israel is continuing to thicken its existing settlements and expanding the settlements' territorial boundaries for yet further expansions. In these circumstances, what is puzzling is not Hamas's refusal to accept Israel's dictates but the support given by the international community - particularly by the European Union - to Israeli efforts to isolate and overthrow Hamas.

Israel's government has left no doubt that even if Mr Abbas's promised referendum passes by a large majority (indeed, even if Hamas were to sign up to it), Israel will not accept it as the basis for a peace process and will proceed to set its border with the Palestinians unilaterally. Should that turn out to be the case, will European leaders continue their support of Washington's incurable pandering to Israel's rightwing policies, or will they muster the political will to re-engage with the Palestinian Authority and provide the needed political and economic support for the Palestinians' achievement of their national rights? The answer to that question may well determine the future of the entire region.

The writer is a senior fellow on the Middle East at the US's Council onForeign Relations and a visiting professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. These views are his own