Should Israel negotiate with Hamas? In a post last week I questioned Sir Jeremy Greenstock's claim that Hamas has 'no "charter" for the destruction of Israel in its political programme'. I cited in opposition to that claim Hamas's actual Charter which looks forward to the elimination of Israel. Still, the suggestion is a common one that remaining affixed on the Hamas Charter is needlessly inflexible on Israel's part, since Hamas is a heterogeneous organization containing different tendencies and perspectives. Thus, for example, this column from the New Statesman:
Dr Khaled Hroub, of the Cambridge Arab Media Project, believes that Hamas has long since outgrown the crude anti-Jewish sentiments of its founding charter, which was written by one member of the "Old Guard" of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza. He says that we should judge it on the "government platform" delivered by the newly elected prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, on 27 March 2006. "The entire thrust of the statement is confined directly and indirectly to the parameters of the concept of a two-state solution," he says. "There is no mention or even the slightest hint of the destruction of Israel or the establishment of an Islamic state in Palestine. It reflects very little inclination to radical positions and religious overtones.
"Someone who read this document without knowing that it had been produced by Hamas could justifiably think that it had been written by any other secular Palestinian organisation."
This is all very well, but it avoids what is an obvious question. If Hamas has outgrown the sentiments of its founding charter, why doesn't it renounce and replace, or amend, that charter? If its current thinking is within the parameters of a two-state solution, it could embody the two-state solution within a substitute document.
A similar 'duality' within Hamas's perspectives is noted in an article for the Observer by Peter Beaumont and Hazem Balousha. They write:
Its [Hamas's] covenant - drawn up by Yassin and fellow founders in the al-Shatti refugee camp in Gaza City - declared that all the lands of what was British Mandate Palestine, which preceded Israel's creation, were an Islamic waqf, an endowment given by God to Muslims for all time.
Assassinated by the Israelis in 2004, Yassin was a pragmatist. Even as the Oslo peace process - which Hamas opposed - was dying and Hamas was sending suicide bombers to Israel, Yassin was also outlining a more nuanced vision. While a final settlement with Israel could never be achieved, what was possible, said Yassin and later leaders, was a lengthy hudna - a generation-long cessation of hostilities with Israel, if Israel was prepared to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and withdraw to the pre-1967 borders. The logic was simple. Yassin was convinced that one day Israel would fail or be defeated. But he believed, too, that that was the work for future generations.
The emphasis here is different from that of the New Statesman piece. Where the latter consigns the anti-Jewish sentiments to Hamas's past, Beaumont and Balousha say that the objective of eliminating Israel is now reserved by Hamas for a more or less remote future. Still, common to the two pieces is the implication that Israel could negotiate with Hamas and thereby hope to strengthen its more moderate currents and definitively win the organization away from its aim of getting rid of Israel.
So, repeating the question with which I began: should Israel negotiate with Hamas? There are here, in fact, two 'should's and not one. There is a tactical 'should'. Is it in the interest of Israel and its people to do this? Your answer will depend on assessing the probable consequences of Israel's negotiating with Hamas, on how likely you think it is that negotiating would have the benign consequences envisaged by those recommending negotiation. My answer is that I don't know. I don't know whether Hamas, under the influence of negotiation and whatever follows from it, will give up their eliminationist aim. There is also a moral 'should'. Does Israel have any moral obligation to negotiate with Hamas, with an organization that envisages, whether sooner or later, the destruction of the country? The answer to that seems to me entirely straightforward. Israel has no such obligation. No nation is obliged to deal, as between dialogic equals, with an organization that denies its fundamental right to national existence and announces the intention of terminating it. It would be good if more of Israel's critics recognized this, but that may be expecting too much in the present toxic climate.