Is Hamas Preparing the Ground for Compromise?

Will it be called the PA government or Hamas government? This semantic reframing carries political significance.

The Hamas movement announced that PA ministers would cease their activities within the Hamas movement (Ha’aretz, 4/7/06). Government representatives requested that the new government be referred to as the PA Government and not the Hamas Government (Ha’aretz, 4/10/06).

The Re’ut Institute contends that these declarations could be the first stage in a strategy designed to break off the international coalition against Hamas.

What is the Issue?

Israel and the international community presented the Palestinians with three demands: to recognize Israel, to reaffirm existing agreements and to end violence. The international coalition created to pressure Hamas to accept these demands, has significantly decreased economic assistance to the PA.

However, these actions could severely obstruct Palestinian economic activity and result in a humanitarian crisis or the dismantling of the PA. Moreover, should Hamas accept the demands or cede control over the PA, the PA’s ability to govern may be substantially damaged.

The worse the economic situation in the PA becomes, the less stable the international coalition will be. There are already signs that it is beginning to unravel: see actions by Russia, France, China and India. Therefore, if Israel does not want to be held responsible for a humanitarian crisis or face the collapse of the PA, it needs to seek a way out from the maze.

Why is this Important? Why Now?

Members of the Quartet, that lead the international coalition, have no consistent mindset regarding the entity subject to the demands.

The US directs the demands to Hamas, while imposing sanctions on the PA, due to Hamas’ control over the government (for the Congressional legislation proposing a freeze on financial assistance to the PA see the AIPAC website); The EU is directing its demands towards the PA government, i.e. the EU would repeal its sanctions if the government accepts the aforementioned demands (Council of European Union, 4/10/06). The UN and Russia called on the international community not to freeze aid to the PA (Al-Hayat Al-Jadida 3/1/06; Al-Hayat, 2/9/06). Even Israel is not presenting a consistent position (see Foreign Ministry press release, 3/22/06), and refers to Hamas and the Hamas government alternately.

In this context it appears that the distinction made by Hamas between the government and the movement could be the first step towards meeting the conditions set by the EU. Such move could trigger the renewal of European aid and further fragment the international coalition.

Policy Options

Does Israel want “to go the distance with Hamas”? If so, Israel must insist that the Hamas movement (and not the government) explicitly comply with the three demands.

On the one hand, achieving this objective will likely necessitate a harsh economic crisis within the PA and a political crisis which might eventually lead to the collapse of the PA. On the other hand, the economic crisis may undermine the unity of the int. coalition.

Is Israel ready for a compromise with Hamas? i.e. Hamas government will explicitly or implicitly accept the three demands, whereas the Hamas movement will remain committed to its fundamentalist ideology. Such scenario would likely prevent a humanitarian crisis in the PA, but would make Israel directly deal with people like Mahmoud Al-Zahar.