Why the Left Should Not Call for Talks with Hamas

Published on The Daily Beast

So long as the Palestinian leadership is divided, so long as Hamas, a terrorist organization dedicated to our destruction, is controlling Gaza, Israel’s government has two excuses not to pursue a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These are all the excuses it needs.

The government gives lip service to a two-state solution, repeatedly pretending to launch discussions preliminary to peace talks, while undermining the two-state solution and Palestinian Authority leadership by expanding settlements and the Jewish control of East Jerusalem. The Jewish public accepts the canard that we have no partner for peace even while our security forces work with the Palestinian Authority to prevent terrorism.

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The left does not support the government’s policy or its practice, but has failed to develop an alternative defense policy, to articulate another set of assumptions or values which might lead to different conclusions. We believe in the two-state solution, and perhaps our thinking remains hostage to the formulations of Oslo, but we act helpless as its realization seems to slip away.

An alternative security platform would have to make a compelling case for why we should proceed with peace talks while Palestinian leadership and control are divided. Whether we advocate giving Abbas a state in the West Bank, and working to insure that in time a moderate leadership prevails over Hamas within Palestinian society, as Hirsch Goodman argues in The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival, or we opt for including Hamas in the mix and seeking a broader agreement, the left will need to tackle some issues it has not convincingly addressed; the risks of making concessions, the experience of terror and missile attacks, and what we intend to do about Iran. And we would have to put less stock in positions that appear to ignore Palestinian violence against us than Peres did in ’96 or peace activists did during the Second Intifada.

Most Israelis are more moderate and reasonable than our government about the conflict with the Palestinians; they would agree to take down settlements, to give up much, if not all of the West Bank, and probably also sign on to unspecified territorial swaps, in exchange for a real peace. The majority of Israelis do not have emotional attachments to most settlements.

But Israeli Jews cannot digest the idea of making territorial concessions to Mahmoud Abbas on the West Bank, while continuing to be at war with Hamas in Gaza, to sacrifice settlements—seeing Jews forcibly moved out of their homes will be traumatic, whatever one thinks of the settlement enterprise—while remaining subject to Palestinian terrorist and missile attacks. We don’t want to risk becoming more vulnerable, should Hamas take over the West Bank, nor feel like “fryerim”—suckers; i.e., to make a bad deal on a final status agreement that isn’t final.

Yasser Arafat famously issued different marching orders in Arabic and in English, condoning or coordinating terrorist attacks while simultaneously negotiating with Israel over Oslo. Israelis no longer have the stomach to risk reliving that scenario. The legacy of the Second Intifada included not just the years of violence but the contraction of optimism, and of leftist legitimacy.

Hamas remains the bogeyman, much as the PLO was, before Madrid and Oslo, but with some crucial differences. If our fight with the PLO was primarily a political turf war, Hamas frames our conflict as part of the cosmic battle of Islam against the West. The Palestinian Authority seems less threatening than Hamas alliances with Iran and its Shia proxies and Hamas’ natural allies, Sunni extremists. The paranoia evident in the references to the Protocols of the Elder of Zion and the Rotary Club in the Hamas Charter shows they are intractably anti-Semitic and just plain nuts. Despite their lunatic theology, they also have a practical side, and they jockey with us for dominance in this world rather than the next.

But the need for the progressive camp to rehabilitate its credibility on security issues should prevent it from advocating a position so far outside the Israeli consensus as talking to Hamas. Such a gambit would likely exacerbate the public’s distrust of the left on security issues.

Most Israeli Jews wrongly experience the current situation as static. They do not recognize that the chances to reach a two-state solution are diminishing as the Occupation continues, and the government works through legislation and indoctrination to normalize the place of growing settlements within Israeli society. Israeli Jews prefer not to think about the Palestinians. If we want to get nervous, we can contemplate a war with Iran.

So we desperately need to develop an alternate peace and security scenario, one that provides hope, that we believe in and that we can defend to our distrustful fellow citizens. But to be credible, it will have to be holistic and persuasive, to address our fears as well as our hopes.

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