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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - July 3, 2006

Q. ...prospects for a negotiated conclusion to the current Israeli campaign against Hamas in Gaza? Q. ...Could and should Israel talk to Hamas?

Q. What are the prospects for a negotiated conclusion to the current Israeli campaign against Hamas in Gaza?

A. The longer the negotiations and the military and political jockeying over the fate of Corporal Gilad Shalit drag out, the more likely it is that he will eventually be freed in exchange for a large number of Israeli prisoners. But judging from past experience of negotiating the release of captured Israelis with Hizballah and Palestinian organizations, that eventuality could be months or even years away. By that time, no one will connect it to the current Israeli campaign, unless the IDF becomes "stuck" in Gaza without a workable exit strategy that is divorced from the Shalit affair.

The key third party involved in attempts to end the current confrontation with some sort of deal is Egypt. Cairo enjoys the advantage of maintaining contacts with virtually all parties involved, including Hamas and, via Syria, its exile leader, Khaled Meshaal, whose role is clearly far more central than that of the Hamas government in Palestine led by Ismail Haniyeh. The Egyptians maintain a liaison office in Gaza, where two intelligence generals are stationed (a 60-officer strong Egyptian training contingent was withdrawn after the Hamas electoral victory on January 25 of this year).

While Egyptian officials led by Minister for Intelligence Omar Suleiman have constant access to Meshaal in Damascus, they can't easily meet with Haniyeh and others inside Gaza, where the latter are hiding for fear of Israeli assassination attempts. Nor are they always certain the terrorist chieftains they are talking to in Gaza really exercise the necessary authority to free Shalit. That is the principal reason for the Egyptians' on-again-off-again mediation effort of the past week or so, and is also one explanation for the pause in the Israeli ground operation.

Egypti's motives for its mediating effort are multiple: Cairo is concerned to reduce Islamist unrest along the Sinai-Gaza border and in Sinai; it has a pan-Arab leadership image to maintain; it can score valuable points with Washington that can be traded later in return for America not exerting democratic reform pressures; and it wants to encourage Israeli moderation on the military plane, lest the entire region become destabilized.

The prospect of the Islamic militants in Gaza freeing Shalit in return for a list of over a thousand Palestinian prisoners is currently openly rejected by Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, who vows publicly to end a long chain of extortive prisoner exchanges. But Israelis have so frequently heard their leaders swear up and down never to give in to blackmail by releasing prisoners--to be followed, after endless negotiations, by a painful deal that features the release of hundreds of known terrorists, sometimes in return for the bodies of dead Israelis or a known ne'er do well like Elhanan Tannenboim--that they treat Olmert's protestations with a measure of cynicism. Besides, it is known that Meshaal has transmitted a list of demands to Olmert. And even the Egyptians, who are being tough with Hamas, reportedly offered a commitment by Olmert (with his consent?) to release prisoners at some unspecified time in the future in return for Shavit.

A prisoner exchange scenario would of course be obviated were Shavit to be rescued or to die in captivity--although even in the latter case, the Palestinian organizations and Hizballah are well versed in extorting Israeli concessions in return for the remains of the dead. Beyond that, Shavit's fate is but one aspect of Operation Summer Rains, and accordingly depends not a little on the IDF's success in imposing a ceasefire of Qassam rocket attacks on Sderot and its vicinity, restoring and burnishing Israel's deterrent image, and weakening or removing the Hamas government. These reflect a jumble of goals associated with the operation that have not always been clearly defined or translated into doable military objectives for the IDF.

This is, after all, a kind of initiation ritual for both PM Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, both of whom took office a couple of months ago without any significant experience in national security decision-making. One lesson they will hopefully draw from this affair concerns the high value Palestinians place on the release of their prisoners from Israeli jails. In better times, that can and should be translated into meaningful Israeli gestures to the PLO--not Hamas.

Q. Could the alternative to fighting Hamas conceivably be talking to Hamas? Could and should Israel talk to Hamas?

A. At the official level, Israel has conditioned its readiness to deal with the new Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government more or less on the same three well-known principles that have been adopted by the United States and the European Union: Hamas must abandon violence, accept past agreements and recognize Israel (or, in Israel's alternative formulation, recognize its right to exist). Thus far Hamas has accepted none of these conditions. Some observers interpret last week's hasty decision by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to sign the "prisoners' document" as constituting de facto recognition of Israel, though Hamas spokesmen deny this and neither Israel nor a two state solution are mentioned in the document.

On the other hand, both Israel and Hamas have acknowledged and even approved the existence of low level contacts at the local operational or logistics level, e.g., dealing with sewage problems between neighboring Israeli and Palestinian municipalities. And the Egyptian efforts to secure the release of Gilad Shalit and end the Israeli campaign in Gaza constitute a kind of indirect negotiation between Israel and Hamas.

Some Israeli observers, such as former Mossad head Efraim Halevy, have suggested that Israel drop its condition regarding recognition, which logically can come at the culmination of a negotiating process rather than at the outset. As matters stand now, this would make no difference in Hamas' overall refusal.

Prior to Operation Summer Rains, some contacts were underway to explore the possibility of individuals from the two sides meeting informally and unofficially. One influential potential mediator in this regard is Alistair Crooke, a British former intelligence official who in recent years served the EU as occasional mediator with Hamas militants in the West Bank and Gaza. Crooke currently runs a think tank that specializes in cultivating contacts between the West and Islamist groups like Hamas and Hizballah. In recent weeks, a group of right-leaning Israeli intellectuals met in Rome with Hamas representatives. The Israelis reported back that Hamas' message was essentially one word, hudna (ceasefire); nothing else was on their agenda with Israel.

While some Israelis have openly advocated informal contacts, Hamas leaders appeared even before the current IDF offensive in Gaza to have a number of hesitations. For one, they were concerned that leaks could embarrass them in their negotiations with Fateh over a coalition or technocrat government. Secondly, they have few effective non-official spokesmen in the West Bank, where contacts with Israelis would be logistically easier, whereas those in Gaza, where Hamas is stronger, could theoretically only meet Israelis in Egypt, unless Russia or a European country gave them visas. Egypt's attitude toward encouraging such contacts appears to be ambiguous. Then, too, as we have seen with regard to coordination of negotiations over the abducted Israeli soldier, communications among Hamas leaders in Gaza, the West Bank and Syria are cumbersome and problematic; presumably even a Hamas non-official would want to coordinate his participation in such contacts with all relevant leaders.

Finally, there are serious issues of principle that complicate even informal contacts. The Israelis involved in such contacts would have to be able to explain, if word got out, why they were sitting with representatives of an anti-Semitic organization that insists Israel must disappear. They could of course cite the situation in the 1980s, when Israelis met with the PLO despite similar positions that it espoused. But things have changed since then and it is fair to ask what point there could be in repeating the tenuous, extended exercise of acculturating the enemy to our very existence.

Indeed, Israelis on the left who might ostensibly be candidates for informal talks with Hamas are particularly wary of doing something that, if exposed, would discredit them with the Fateh activists and officials they have long considered the only candidates for a peace agreement.

On the other hand, Hamas' candidates for contacts, too, appeared even prior to the attack on Kerem Shalom to have preconditions, such as demanding Israeli "recognition" and expecting well-connected Israeli interlocutors to arrange for good will gestures such as prisoner release prior to meetings.

At the end of the day, there probably will be additional contacts. But it is doubtful whether they could pave the way for some sort of Hamas-Israel breakthrough in the near future. And if not handled carefully, leaks about such contacts could do damage to Israeli-PLO relations, tenuous as they are, and to the standing of the Olmert government.