When Israel revealed that Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and the chief of the Israel Defence Forces Southern Command, General Herzl Halevi, made a “secret” visit to Qatar recently, the Qataris and Hamas leadership denied any intentions to arrange high-level meetings between the Islamic Resistance Movement and Israeli leaders. According to Israel, during one visit by Hamas leaders to Egypt, the government in Cairo proposed a meeting between Political Bureau head Ismail Haniyeh or his deputy and a senior Israeli official visiting at the time. The movement refused, because agreeing to talks with Israel is a major decision shared which requires wide consultation. The response was not an outright “no”, so it might be looked at.
This is not the first time that Israel has talked about initiating an open dialogue with Hamas, away from the harsh rhetoric and politics. Despite the hostility between the two sides — Hamas will always be against Zionism —dialogue could achieve their common interests. It is a complicated premise that should be conducted away from the spotlight given that both want to live according to their stated principles. Israel wants the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, while Hamas dreams of an Islamic entity on the same territory.
Israel views Gaza’s current reality as being better than any political alternative that counters its slogans and works to destabilise its security, but it sees Hamas as a greater threat to its strategic goals than the Palestinian Authority run by Fatah. Meanwhile, Hamas believes that the absence of Israeli-PA talks boosts its own approach and casts a shadow on its opponents in Fatah, which has pinned all of its hopes on the “peace process”.
The political reality today thus serves both Hamas and Israel unintentionally. Nevertheless, they both face an uncomfortable security situation, which may turn into a bloody conflict.
Military action, though, is unlikely to change the situation dramatically. Hamas can’t beat Israel, and nor can Israel beat Hamas. Indeed, the Israelis do not really want to eradicate the movement from Gaza because they fear the probable security chaos that would replace it, forcing the occupation back into the enclave to manage the affairs of two million Palestinians.
What may encourage dialogue between Hamas and Israel is that an unwanted confrontation would resemble its predecessors, and end in a draw with a lot of bloodshed on both sides. The home fronts would be showered with hundreds of missiles and tonnes of explosives and both sides would incur untold economic losses. This reality is forcing them to make a lot of effort for a ceasefire to avoid the predictable scenario.
Dialogue is in the interest of both Hamas and Israel in order to reduce the uncertainty along Gaza’s nominal border; cut back the role of the Fatah-run PA, which works to aggravate the situation in Gaza; and give both sides an opportunity to stabilise the understandings approved since October 2018. This has been reiterated by many senior Israeli figures as well as Palestinian and Arab experts who see no good reason for Israel to engage in new wars with Hamas. Instead, they insist, the state should reach understandings with the movement.
The prevailing conviction among many Israelis is that the state will eventually talk with Hamas. It is true that they will not find a definitive solution to the conflict, but they can at least reach bilateral understandings, which will depend not on military calculations, but on a change in perception by the two sides, allowing them to get to the stage where they are convinced that even a temporary solution is desirable. Hamas, remember, has proposed a long-term truce — a hudna — on a number of occasions.
The situation in Gaza today requires Israel to take the initiative, because it may explode at any moment, or we will see the resumption of weekly marches near the border. The Gaza Strip has basically had to become an independent state over the past 13 years; it has land, a de facto government with its own foreign policy, and armed forces. Moreover, Israel has no political or economic interests in the territory; its sole interest is based on security and the wish to maintain a calm border.
Israel should change its policy towards Gaza as it admits that it is adjacent to an independent political entity. Hamas came to power through free and fair democratic elections, so Israel should encourage Arab and Western countries to rebuild the territory, by involving Hamas and not ignoring it. The more that the Palestinians in Gaza see the infrastructure being redeveloped — the energy and desalination plants, for example — the more that the movement is likely to be amenable to change.
Even though Mossad’s Yossi Cohen did not meet any Hamas officials in Qatar, it is clear that there is a change in Israel’s willingness, and maybe eagerness, to speak directly with the “enemy”. Neither side can seriously avoid acknowledging the other, so why use third parties to deliver messages?
According to one Israeli who was involved in indirect talks with Hamas, he was once sitting in the Knesset with a minister while talking to a senior Hamas official on his mobile phone, with the minister listening intently to the conversation. He asked the minister to speak to the official directly. He was scared to do so, but what would have happened if he had taken the phone and started that conversation?
While the intermediaries may not have much interest in enabling direct contact between Israel and Hamas, the situation is reminiscent of the early days of Israeli contact with the Palestine Liberation Organisation in the mid-seventies. The distance between the two sides was so great that they could only be filled by direct contact. Today, it is worth noting that most former senior security officials in Israel believe that it is right to hold direct talks with Hamas. The objections, of course, come from the current officials who are prisoners of the electorate and feel that they have to reject talks with the movement.
Those Israelis calling for dialogue with Hamas are demanding that the seemingly endless round of military confrontation should not continue, because it does not reflect the genuine political alternatives on the table. A real change in Israeli thinking is needed; the political leaders need to be brave enough to lead the country instead of pandering to populist ideas; they need to break the rules that have trapped them in limbo with no hope of escape.
None of this ignores the fact that direct dialogue between Hamas and Israel will pose immense challenges. Apart from anything else, the Israeli and Palestinian people need to be convinced. Hence, the leadership in Tel Aviv and Gaza must be prepared for serious criticism from the partisans on both sides.
That is why such talks need to be conducted out of the limelight in the first instance. Israel has done so previously with Arab states as well as the Palestinians, so is no stranger to the possible political repercussions. Both parties should grasp the nettle and move forward, despite the challenges and difficulties of direct talks. The first step is to change the mode of communication, so that they do not slip back into the catastrophic scenario from which they both hope to escape.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.