With Israel offering up the prospect of talks with the Palestinians, could the peace process be back on track?

Holding fire

Ehud Olmert’s speech last week outlining concessions Israel is willing to make to the Palestinians, along with the attempted ceasefire, are positive steps following a bleak year. Whilst the election of Hamas was a massive setback for the peace process, Olmert’s speech reminds us that the shape of a deal to move forward has always been visible.

It requires the Palestinians to establish a unity government that accepts the principles of the peace process, prevents attacks on Israel and releases the captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. In return, Israel recognises the unified Palestinian government, renews the transfer of tax revenues, releases Palestinian prisoners and relaxes restrictions on movement. If such groundwork were laid, the two sides could then talk about more substantive issues such as interim borders.

But this process faces a major hurdle. Recognising Israel and the peace process is the absolute antithesis of Hamas’ ideology. For them, opposition to the west, opposition to Israel’s existence and antisemitism are core doctrine. Hamas’ external leadership in Syria are absolutely opposed to accepting the principle of a permanent two-state solution.

So how is progress possible? Should Israel and the international community engage with a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas and stops short of accepting a two-state solution, in order to improve the situation on the ground and draw support away from the extremists? The status quo is clearly unpalatable for both sides. Israel cannot stop the firing of rockets from Gaza by force and the ongoing occupation is undermining its international legitimacy. Meanwhile, the Palestinian’s economic, political and social situation continues to deteriorate. If the Palestinian president, Mahmous Abbas, who accepts the Roadmap, can co-opt Hamas through an internal political agreement, then why not just deal with him and overlook Hamas’ opposition to the peace process?

Israel is reluctant to do so for good reason. After months of talks, Fatah and Hamas have failed to establish a unity government, giving Israel little faith in the ability of Abbas to either control or co-opt the Islamists. More than that, Israel fears a future Palestinian state will not be a beacon of Arab democracy, but a weak state like Lebanon or a fundamentalist state like Iran. Neither Israel, nor the international community, can tolerate the creation of such a state in the Palestinian Territories. Backed by Iran, it would have the potential to completely undermine Israel’s security and further destabilise the region.

It is highly unlikely that Hamas will compromise and whilst they can be weakened by military force, they cannot be destroyed. However, doing nothing is also not an option, as stagnation further fuels extremism. So how can the ceasefire turn into a peace process? It must be a first step in easing restrictions on Palestinian movement and improving their economic situation. Furthermore, Israeli leaders must continue to talk publicly about the shape of a peace agreement they are ready to accept. The voice of the majority in Israel, who are ready in principle to give up settlements and end the occupation, must be heard from Ramallah to Gaza and throughout the region. The Palestinian people should be given incentives to break with extremism and demand a leadership that will cut a deal. Meanwhile, pragmatic Palestinian leaders must find a way to regenerate themselves, harness the desire of ordinary Palestinian for a solution and take back the initiative from Hamas.

The international community should make it absolutely clear to the Palestinians that everything is possible through the path of moderation, and nothing is possible through the path of extremism. At the same time, in both Europe and the Middle East, states will have to be ready to reward Israel’s current leadership, weakened by recent conflict, with diplomat rewards for positive steps. For example, international recognition that some of the settlement blocs will remain, as part of a future land-swap deal, may help Olmert revive his plan to establish borders with the Palestinians. Leaders outside the region must be clear to Israelis and Palestinians alike, that safeguarding the security of the state of Israel is just as important as establishing the state of Palestine.

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