Hamas Israel Palestinian Authority Palestinians

Is there really “no one to talk to?” Maybe, maybe not…

The premise that there is no viable Palestinian partner is widely shared, conventional wisdom among the Israeli public and center-right pundits. At the same time, to the far-left and other bashers of all things Israeli (including some regular commentators on this humble blog) this premise is just an Israeli pretext for clinging to the status quo.

The truth, as usual, resides in the grey area which not enough people are willing to visit.

The impassioned Gideon Levy offers a brief, bitter explanation of why the notion that “Israel has no partner” is a myth:

Benjamin Netanyahu has already undergone his “historic turnabout,” he’s reportedly ready to discuss, certainly discuss, the ’67 borders, with territory swaps and security arrangements. Even the timetable has already been set – two years, of course it’s two years, it’s always two years, two years more. At the end, Israel’s ultimate triumph will be declared: There’s no partner. Again we’ll hear that the Palestinian president is “a chicken with no feathers” or that the Palestinian leaders are “a gang of terrorists,” and again we’ll hear that there’s no one to talk to.

There is no Palestinian partner, because there is no Israeli partner who is ready to take action. The day that Israel starts acting, together with the Palestinians, the partner will be there. Even Nelson Mandela wasn’t the Mandela we know until he was freed from prison and South Africa was placed in his hands. He too refused to give up armed resistance for decades, but when he was given a true opportunity, he followed a path of peace. The key was in the hands of F.W. de Clerk, not those of Mandela. Israel, too, has that key.

Broadly speaking, he’s on to something, because he shows that nothing is necessarily static, including conflicts that appear to be intractable. For the last 100 years or so, the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East has been characterized by reactions and counter-reactions, by violence and tough talk from one side that produced violence and tough talk from the other. If that cycle were broken, peace might have a fighting chance.

On the other hand, it requires a gigantic leap of faith to presume, as does Levy, that Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders can be compared to Nelson Mandela, and all it will take for them to renounce maximalist claims and armed struggle is for Israel to act as if it really did want meaningful compromise. In the mid-1990s, Hamas terrorism was meant –at least in part–to DISRUPT the peace process and curb Fatah’s power, and every time there seemed to be hope for meaningful compromise they sought to dash it. Have they changed their stripes now? I’ve heard and read hopeful lefties insisting that Hamas has evolved or at least not stayed the same, that there are Hamas “moderates” who can and must be cultivated. They might be right, but their claims are based mostly on wishful thinking and flimsy evidence, e.g., a few Hamas leaders, but certainly not those in every faction, have declared a willingness to live side by side with Israel if it retreats to its 1967 borders.

Even if Levy and his hopeful allies are correct in their assumptions about Hamas, there is the problem of the divided Palestinian polity. Israel needs one partner to talk to. It doesn’t have one. That is a rather predictable assertion, but in this case the conventional wisdom is true.

Nothing is going to be solved unless Hamas goes along with the solution. But every attempt by the Egyptians to unify the Palestinian parties has failed miserably. At present, the Fatah leadership does not want Israel to strengthen Hamas by recognizing it as a legitimate negotiating partner. If I’m not mistaken, whatever it says publicly about relieving Palestinian suffering, Fatah also does not want Israel to take the pressure off of Hamas by ending its boycott of the Gaza Strip.

Moreover, if the Palestinian factions were unified, somehow, the price would be negotiating positions that exacerbate already large differences with the Israelis over Jerusalem, the right of return and other matters.

DeKlerk knew who is opposite number was. He had Mandela and the ANC to contend with, although there were other factions among South African blacks. The Palestinian leadership has always been divided. It used to be factionalism based on rival clans. Now it is based on rival ideologies. If Gideon Levy could solve that one, I’d be completely in his corner. But, alas, he can’t. So I really don’t have a corner to stand in, other than the one that is shared with people who want the parties to do no harm, to stop taking steps that will render it impossible to reach an eventual solution.

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