Friday 13 June 2003

There will be no Middle East peace without Hamas

Abu Mazen is never going to be able to deliver his people alone

Hamas - A Tool of the Zionists The worsening violence in Israel and the occupied territories could be taken to mean that the scheme for a settlement between the two peoples launched so recently is already doomed. The "road map", which the US and others have persuaded Israelis and Palestinians to endorse, does indeed lay out a route which is strewn with obstacles and which is only going to work with a lot of luck and a great deal of perseverance, above all on the part of the US. But it is not upset for ever because of one vicious round of hostilities between the Israelis and Hamas, and if the lessons of that confrontation can be learned the chances of success may improve.

What the confrontation shows is that there has to be an understanding between Israel and the more extreme wing of the Palestinian movement, as well as one between Israel and Fatah (Yasser Arafat's political organisation) - or, rather, there has to be a triangular understanding between all three - if there is to be progress toward peace. This has been evident for a long time, but it has been pushed to one side because in the public worldview of both the Sharon and Bush governments there is no place for negotiations with those responsible for terror.

The position of the Sharon government has been essentially that the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), will restrain and disarm Hamas and Islamic Jihad as soon as he can - and that, until he can, the Israelis will do his job for him. That familiar line was heard again and again from Israeli spokesmen justifying the decision to try to kill the Hamas political leader Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi. What makes it unconvincing is that the road map is not the Oslo process and Abu Mazen is not the Yasser Arafat of years ago. Then the Palestinian Authority would arrest activists from Hamas and Jihad, and act, at least intermittently, as the Israelis wanted it to, as their policeman in the occupied territories. But Abu Mazen has made it abundantly clear to the Israelis - both by reiterating that he will not use force against Hamas and by refusing to take on early responsibility for security in some Palestinian towns and cities - that he is not going to be their policeman in that sense. Less certainly, he has probably tried to convey to the Israelis that, just as he cannot be their policeman, they cannot act as his. A Palestinian prime minister seen to be in any sense in systematic collusion with an Israel bent on wiping out all forces more extreme than Fatah could not last for long.

No, Abu Mazen's chances, and the chances of the road map, depend on a deal with Hamas, and that by definition means there must be a deal between Israel and Hamas and even one between the US and Hamas - at one or two removes, and maybe more a half deal than a worked out pact, but a deal all the same. Anathema though this may be to these two governments, this is undoubtedly the logic of the road map, in spite of all the rhetoric against terror. Only by understanding this necessity can the events of the past week or so be understood. We went from a situation in which Abu Mazen was expressing confidence in his ability to induce Hamas to accept a ceasefire, to one in which Hamas denounced the statements made at Aqaba and broke off the ceasefire negotiations. Then followed the attack on the Israeli army post in which four Israeli soldiers died, then the assassination attempt on Dr Rantissi, and then the Jerusalem bus bombing, and then more attacks in Gaza. Natural though it is to deplore the return to the "cycle of violence", this is not a cycle in the sense of being a wanton repetition of killing, but a sequence of bloody signals, and it is important to try to grasp what the violence is saying. Hamas would not have been engaged in negotiations with Abu Mazen unless it believed it was both necessary to do so and that there was some advantage in doing so. Hamas needs to show sensitivity to the war weariness of its supporters, to get relief from the Israeli retaliation that has cut a swathe through its leading cadres, and to respond to the reality of American re-engagement with the Palestinian issue. But that does not mean that it is going to sit and negotiate its own demise.

Until recently the Israelis were dismissive of Abu Mazen's negotiations with Hamas, insisting that what was needed was an immediate crackdown on its activities. On the eve of the Aqaba summit, they shifted to accept the idea of a ceasefire, but only as a prelude to the disarmament of Hamas at a later stage.

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