Hamas May Be the Key to a New Middle East Peace Process

Jerome M. Segal

At bottom, what stands in the way of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Last September, on the eve of Israel’s elections, Yair Lapid, then Israel’s Prime Minister, addressed this at the UN General Assembly. What he said was surprising: “Despite all the obstacles, still today a large majority of Israelis support the vision of a two state solution.”

Can this be true? It certainly was not reflected in the election results nor in recent polling. Lapid, however, went on to offer an account of why this majority support for two-states is not only inactive but invisible. Essentially he said that while the two-state ‘vision’ continues to exist, it doesn’t translate into a political force because Israelis simply don’t believe that a Palestinian state would really live at peace with Israel. And here he asked his listeners to consider how things look to Israelis.

“Look at Gaza. Israel did everything the world asked of us, including from this very stage. We left. 17 years ago we dismantled the settlements, took apart our military bases. . . . What did they do in response? In less than a year, Hamas, a murderous terror organization, came to power. . . . Since we left Gaza, over 20,000 rockets and missiles have been fired at Israel.”

Whether Lapid is correct that there exists a silent majority that, in theory, still supports the two-state solution, he is certainly correct that Israel’s experience in the years since it left Gaza has made many, if not most, Israelis unwilling to end the occupation of the West Bank in favor of a Palestinian state. The operative question, for those seeking to re-establish a serious peace process, is how to respond to this reality.

Lapid, neither in his speech nor in his policies, provided an adequate answer. Rather, than taking any constructive steps, he maintained that changing Israeli attitudes is the responsibility of the Palestinians. With his mind on the 2007 Hamas/Fatah shoot-out in Gaza, he challenged the Palestinians, saying: “Prove that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are not going to take over the Palestinian state you want to create.”

This focus on a potential coup by Hamas within a future Palestinian state obscures the deeper problem, as well as the solution. The real challenge Hamas poses to the durability of a PLO negotiated peace agreement, is not a coup, but the distinct possibility that Hamas would come to power through elections. The fighting in Gaza in 2007 in which Hamas drove Fatah fighters out of Gaza, came in the context of the 2006 Parliamentary elections, in which Hamas won a decisive majority of the seats in the Palestinian parliament, and was not allowed to govern. Moreover, the most recent Palestinian polling shows that if elections were held today, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would handily defeat Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has not faced elections since 2005. A democratic Palestine will always contain the possibility of a democratically elected Hamas government, not because Hamas’ ideology is broadly supported, but because Hamas is the political alternative to the Fatah-led PLO, which has not been able to deliver the independent Palestinian state it has promised, since 1988, would result from abandoning the dream of liberating all of Palestine.

Thinking of Hamas as primarily a political organization, rather than reducing it to a terrorist group, allows us to better see how peace is related to Palestinian democracy. To ask for “proof” that Hamas would never come to rule a Palestinian state is not merely to ask for proof that they could not carry out a successful coup, but proof that Palestine would never be a democracy. Not only can there be no such proof, but to seek it is morally untenable, and to build a peace on the sustained absence of democracy is to build on sand.

Palestinian democracy, one that elects a peace government, could be a solid foundation for co-existence between two democratic states. But, it is hard to see how such democracy will emerge while the conflict is unresolved. The possibility that a maximalist Hamas could come to power through elections can never be ruled out, and this results in American and Israeli support for Fatah’s refusal to hold elections. But a Palestinian government viewed by its people as illegitimate cannot give Israel the assurance it needs that it will not face a hostile Palestinian state after it has ended the occupation.

As an alternative to negotiating with a democratic Palestine, Israel has another option. It could insist that no negotiated Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, would go into effect, unless it were approved in a Palestinian referendum. While this would not be “proof” that no future Palestinian government would abandon a negotiated treaty, it is a way of legitimating a PLO negotiated agreement and offers some degree of confidence in the staying power of a peace agreement.

But might it be possible to go a step further, to gain from Hamas itself agreement that it would be bound by any such treaty that was ratified in a popular referendum?

Some may maintain that Hamas would never agree to such a framework. But those knowledgeable about “missed opportunities to resolve the IP conflict” know just the opposite. In May 2006, amidst clashes between Fatah and Hamas, following Hamas’ electoral victory in the January parliamentary elections of the Palestinians Authority, Palestinian prisoners being held by Israel, representing multiple factions, produced a document intended to promote Palestinian unity. Called “The Prisoners’ Document,” it received broad support among the Palestinian public and a month later Fatah and Hamas formally agreed to the terms of the document, with only minor modifications. This was reaffirmed in a short-lived Fatah-Hamas unity government in 2007.

A key section of the document dealt with negotiations with Israel, how they could be carried out and under what circumstances an agreement reached with Israel would be binding on both Fatah and Hamas, despite their ideological differences. It was agreed that the authority for negotiating would reside with the PLO or the President of the Palestinian Authority and that any negotiated agreement would have to be submitted for ratification, either by a reformed PLO National Council of which Hamas would be part, or by approval in a referendum that would include the refugees in the diaspora.

What is needed today is to revisit that agreement, so that it is re-affirmed and placed on a solid ideological footing within Palestinian political discourse, and thus not easily swept aside at some later date. The ideological moorings for such an agreement are at hand. The most fundamental pillar of Palestinian political thought, one shared across the entire spectrum of factions, is an insistence on the centrality of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. And a second pillar is respect for the resolutions of the United Nations, to Palestinians, the primary source of “international legitimacy.”

These can be brought together in a simple but powerful United Nations General Assembly Resolution to be voted on in the coming Fall session:

The General Assembly,

  1. Affirming the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination;
  2. Determining that a referendum of the Palestinian people, including the refugees in the Diaspora, is a primary vehicle through which the Palestinian right to self-determination is expressed;
  3. Hereby, establishes as a norm in international law and conduct that any peace agreement between Israel and the PLO which is ratified in such a referendum of the Palestinian people must thus be respected by all state and non-state actors.

Such a resolution would be overwhelmingly approved at the UN. Indeed, quite possibly the United States would vote for it, as might an enlightened Israeli government. It might even be supported by Iran, which would be a game-changer. Surely it would be supported by most Americans and by the silent majority Prime Minister Lapid spoke of.

Endorsement of a “respect for referendum” norm by the UN will not only offer Hamas an opportunity to re-affirm its continuing adherence to its 2006 position, it will make this visible to the Israeli public, something that did not occur at that time. This is not to say that Israelis will suddenly become true believers that a negotiated peace agreement will give rise to lasting peace. But a solid ratification-by-referendum structure, accepted both by the international community and non-state actors such as Hamas, can give rise to a cautious hopefulness that would be sufficient for a renewed peace process. This is not the “proof” Lapid demanded, but making a peace agreement subject to approval in a referendum, and to Hamas’ acceptance of such approval as binding, is as much as can reasonably be asked.

Jerome M. Segal is the director of the International Peace Consultancy, and the author of “The Olive Branch from Palestine: The Palestinian Declaration of Independence and the Path Out of the Current Impasse, (University of California Press, 2022).

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