Adrian Hamilton: There is room for hope and despair in Gaza

Negotiating for the hostage release could provide the breatkhrough to wider talks

The Independent

Published: 29 June 2006

The agonising thing for anyone who takes an interest in the Middle East is the way in which, at any one time, the possibilities of a real breakthrough to peace give cause for optimism while the drive of events on the ground gives every reason for pessimism. If only the political leaders could make the leap, you feel, it would be possible to bring the parties together in this troubled land. And, as you think it, you know this is exactly the opposite of what is likely to happen.

Rarely has the conjunction of extreme possibilities been so stark as the present. On the one hand, you have an agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, that could open up the way to implicit recognition of Israel. On the other hand, you have the might of Israeli armour moving into Gaza in an effort to force the Palestinians into giving up an Israeli soldier taken prisoner over the weekend.

The one development has got diplomats and commentators fearfully overexcited about the possibilities of a negotiating breakthrough, the other has got old Middle East hands equally depressed at the thought that it is only a matter of time before the initial invasion of Gaza leads to bloodshed, civilian deaths and a vicious cycle of revenge attacks.

The reality is that neither hope nor fear is right, or at least it is perfectly possible for both peace and war to progress in parallel. Hamas hasn't suddenly dropped its past objections to recognising Israel and is giving up violence - the two conditions imposed on it by Israel and the international community before they are willing to deal with the new Palestinian government. What it has done is something well short of that but, in its own way, just as hopeful.

The joint manifesto leaving external negotiations to Abbas is essentially an internal compromise between Hamas and Fatah to end weeks of open warfare between the two factions. It's not aimed at Israel or to furthering peace negotiations as such. In that sense, Hamas spokesmen are being perfectly honest in saying that it cannot be treated as implying recognition of Israel or any great move in outside terms on their part.

On the other hand it does represent a provisional, and still vulnerable, move towards bringing the Palestinians together again and forming a government of national unity. And for the outside world, it does mean that Hamas is giving Abbas full authority, and support, to negotiate a peace along the lines of the 1967 boundaries. For those who want Hamas to sign on the dotted line of Israeli recognition and give up the gun, they won't get it. Hamas sees those two requirements as the end of the negotiating process, not its essential precondition. But for those who see peace in terms of the long negotiations with the IRA, for example, the possibilities are there.

The same ambivalence can be seen in Israel's incursion into Gaza and its bombing of the civilian infrastructure. In one sense, it is a demonstration of classic Israeli hardman tactics - two eyes for an eye, the whole jaw for a tooth. The Palestinians have seized an Israeli in an act of terrorism. Israel does not deal with terrorists. The Palestinian government must give up their hostage or else.

Yet in another sense, this time the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, is moving with caution. The tanks have moved across the border, but they have not gone into the population centres, where civilian casualties are bound to occur. The aim, initially at least, appears to be to squeeze not to batter, if only not to risk the life of the hostage.

But that in itself is an opportunity. Negotiating with the Palestinians, through Abbas, for the release of the hostage could provide the breakthrough to wider talks. It would require a prisoner exchange of some sort and a swallowing of pride. And it would involve the abandonment of the principle of never giving in to violence and talking to terrorists. But then those were absolutes breached to good effect with the Basques, the IRA and most of the freedom movements of the colonial era. And what is the alternative? To hold the whole Palestinian population to account, to take action involving civilian deaths and thus risk inducing the execution of the prisoner in retaliation. And then what? Wholesale slaughter?

The question is not whether you should never do deals with terrorists, but whether Olmert has the political courage to try it, or, indeed, whether he wants to. Behind the thud of bombs and the revving up of tank engines in Gaza there is a profound scepticism in Palestine and most of the Middle East about Israel's true intentions. Does it want a peaceful two-state solution? If so, the possibilities are there. Or does it really want to impose the unilateralist solution set out by Olmert in his plan for limited withdrawals, in which case it doesn't matter what Hamas does, Israel will find a reason for rejecting it. In which case, we are in for more of the same, only worse.