Hamas’ offer Monday of a 10-year truce with Israel provided it retreat to its pre-1967 borders and grant the right of return to Palestinian refugees was seen in Israel as nothing more than an attempt to grab headlines.
“They don’t want to be frozen out,” said Asher Susser, a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.
He pointed out that Hamas’ top political leader, Khalid Meshal, made the offer in a five-hour interview with The New York Times. Susser said Hamas, an internationally recognized terrorist organization whose charter calls for Israel’s destruction, had made the offer many times before. It is “being repeated now because it is the eve of the Netanyahu visit to the United States.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House on May 18 for their first meeting since both took office.
“He can’t go beyond what has been said before without the organization becoming radically different,” Susser said of Meshal, who was just re-elected by his organization’s leadership to a fourth four-year term. “He’s just speaking about some kind of temporary arrangement with Israel to keep Hamas in people’s minds.”
Avraham Sela, an expert on Hamas and a professor in Hebrew University’s department of international relations, pointed out that Hamas’ position is not that much different from the Palestinian Authority and the Fatah Party, both of which are headed by Mahmoud Abbas with whom Israel has been conducting peace talks.
In the interview, which was conducted in Damascus where Meshal lives in exile, he said the truce would take place once Israel returned to its pre-1967 borders — including giving up East Jerusalem — dismantled all West Bank settlements and permitted all Palestinian refugees to return to their former homes in Israel.
The Arab League peace plan, first broached by Saudi Arabia in 2002, calls for Israel to take the same steps and in return it promises that all Arab nations would recognize Israel’s existence and develop normal relations with it, something Hamas refuses to do. Although Israel at first rejected the plan, it now views it as a basis for future peace talks; Arab nations insist the plan is non-negotiable.
In the newspaper interview, Meshal said: “I promise the American administration and the international community that we will be part of the solution, period.”
He said the fact that few rockets have been fired into Israel since Israel’s three-week military offensive against Hamas at the beginning of the year was a calculated strategy.
“Not firing the rockets currently is part of an evaluation from the movement which serves the Palestinians’ interest,” Meshal said. “After all, the firing is a method, not a goal. Resistance is a legitimate right, but practicing such a right comes under an evaluation by the movement’s leaders.”
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, pointed out that the Hamas interview comes at a time when the Obama administration “has been very aggressive about trying to boost the image of Abbas and his reliability.”
“It’s clear that some sort of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will start soon and Hamas will be left out in the cold,” he said.
Steinberg noted out that Conflicts Forum, a Washington-based organization, has been “lobbying for the British, Europeans and Americans to talk to Hamas,” and that the Obama administration has suggested that a Hamas-Fatah unity government receive American financial aid.
“The purpose was to give Hamas an incentive to join a unity government,” he said, adding that so far it has not worked.
Sela said he does not believe a unity government will be formed anytime soon because of a conflict over “authority and the distribution of the budget.” And because Israel refuses to recognize Hamas, Sela said Hamas leaders have decided to “bypass Israel” and appeal directly to the Obama administration for recognition.
“It thinks it might have an opportunity with a new American president who accepts a two-state solution,” he said.
Sela said Obama’s promotion of a two-state solution has put undue pressure on Israel “without much talk of what is expected or demanded from the other side.”
At the same time, he said the Palestinian Authority “is hardly surviving,” being artificially resuscitated by the Israeli Army deployed in the West Bank.
“It would take just a few months for Hamas to take over [if the army left],” Sela said.
He said the only way for a two-state solution to work would be for Israel to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority or PLO “that included Hamas.”
“Keeping Hamas out of the loop means a destructive Hamas,” Sela insisted. “The interests of Israel and the international community is to bring Hamas into the beginning of the process in order to hold it at least partly responsible. … But I’m not sure Hamas is ripe for this.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, pointed out that Hamas itself just went through a reorganization in which it selected six representatives from Gaza, six from the West Bank and six from the diaspora to create a legislative council to work with Meshal.
“It’s to show that Hamas represents the entire Palestinian people and that it is intent on taking over the West Bank,” Hoenlein said.
He pointed out that Meshal’s claim that there would be a 10-year truce if Israel agreed to its demands “does not mean it would end all acts of resistance and that there would not continue to be a build-up of arms. We should learn not to be fooled by declarations designed for Western consumption and to pressure Israel.”