Gerald M. Steinberg

Talk to Hamas? It’s not 1986 and they’re not Fatah

Yesterday, another former IDF general repeated the slogan that to end the chaos and terror from Gaza, Israeli leaders need to “talk to Hamas.” Dan Halutz, (a pilot who led the Air Force before a short and disastrous tenure as IDF Chief of Staff during the 2006 Lebanon War) who was interviewed by Esty Perez on the main Reshet Bet mid-day radio news program, echoed the simplistic slogan favored by many ex-generals, diplomats, and pundits (including some of my academic colleagues).

The formula is misleading (an understatement) for numerous reasons, all of which should be obvious to anyone who looks beyond the words to the substance. First, talks, like tangos, take two — and the leaders of Hamas (originally an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood) have no interest in cooperating or coordinating with Israel. Their goal, clearly stated, is the elimination of the Jewish state.

The best that can be expected is short-term coordination on providing food, electricity, cash (from Qatar) and other basics to the population of Gaza. And on these issues, talks are taking place.

Which brings us to the next point — more than a decade of such humanitarian coordination has not provided the Israelis who live near the Gaza border a moment of quiet. These temporary agreements, when they are concluded, do not spill over (to use the technical term) to wider political issues. The lack of spillover is a basic fact of negotiation life (not unique to Israel and Hamas), but the myth is stronger than the reality. Wishing or imagining it were otherwise will not change the facts.

So why do Halutz, Benny Gantz and others in this group cling to the “we need to talk to Hamas” mantra? Partly, because as military professionals who have concluded that there are no military solutions, they need an alternative. “Talks” and negotiations are like a desert mirage — enticing from far away, and evaporating upon closer inspection.

But there is more. These officials are recycling the mid-1980s political slogan declarting “for peace, we need to talk to the PLO” — meaning Arafat. At the time, Arafat had convinced many European leaders, a few Americans, and a number of Israelis (particularly Shimon Peres, Yosi Beilin, and Alon Liel) that he was prepared to negotiate a peace agreement. The Israeli government, led by Yitzhak Shamir, correcly understood that Arafat only wanted to use talks (and Israeli naivete) to gain international legitimacy, and held firm to the policy of not talking to terrorists. Thus, the slogan was born, in a specific context, 35 years ago.

Even if the they were right then (and Liel, among others, insists that the Oslo process that began in 1992 were not the catastrophic disaster that most Israelis remember), the situation now with the rulers of Gaza is entirely different. Arafat craved international legitimacy; Hamas officials do not. And 30 years ago, the Fatah faction of the PLO was at least willing to play at peace negotiations; Hamas does not.

Bottom line — the slogan “talk to Hamas” is meaningless. Dealing with Gaza will require much more complex policies, and as long as Hamas (or similar groups) maintains power, Israel wil need to manage this conflict with intelligence.

About the Author
Gerald Steinberg is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Bar Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor. His latest book is "Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism", (Indiana University Press)
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