Why Israel must find a means of negotiating with Hamas

25th June 2013

When thinking about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, William Hague’s often repeated words echo in our ears: we are at a "truly critical stage" for the Middle East Peace Process. Such a critical stage

would necessitate leadership of the highest order, ready effortlessly to bat away comments that the idea of a Palestinian state is "dead" – as Naftali Bennett, a rising political star within the Israeli Government, said this week.  Unfortunately, the events of the past few days have demonstrated the opposite: the Palestinian Leadership remains weak and divided. 

I last saw Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in September and he told me he felt he was “pushing everything uphill”.  The ruling party, Fatah was crippled with infighting and rivalry – and the shaky relationship between President Abbas and his Prime Minister was no secret.  While Fayyad’s economic development programme in the West Bank (dubbed "Fayyadis"’) always made him a favourite in the West, years of intransigence on the Israeli side made even the most user-friendly Palestinian politician run out of steam.  Fayyad resigned in April.

This week, it was this cocktail of conditions which greeted the newly appointed Prime Minister, Rami Hamdullah.  As President of a University in the West Bank, he came to the job with little political experience.  He was a tactical choice on the part of President Abbas, who for years had been sick of Fayyad stealing the limelight and questioning his leadership on key decisions.  The President wanted to appoint someone who would toe the line, and allow him to get on with running the show.  But Hamdullah took one look at the internal turmoil of the Palestinian leadership, and tendered his resignation before his feet were even under the table.  He will now stay on as a caretaker figure until his replacement is found – but this whole fiasco is just another symptom of a critically if not terminally ill patient.

With the landscape constantly deteriorating around them, the lack of hope felt by ordinary Palestinians on the ground has percolated up into the highest echelons of the Palestinian leadership. Hamdallah’s resignation, hot on the heels of Fayyad’s, is a resounding vote of no confidence in the political process, both internally and externally. The Palestinian leadership, functioning on an expired mandate after the 2010 elections failed to take place, already faces a legitimacy crisis. Without an electoral process to allow political leaders to emerge, the potential is limited for a talented replacement.

On my last meeting with Fayyad, he emphasised that governing without a functioning legislature was both difficult and extremely challenging, and that it was paramount to begin the serious process of rebuilding the political system.  How could such a broken political system hope to deliver the dynamic and robust power politics required for a successful negotiation with Israel?  Indeed, Fayyad stressed that a leadership which has not opened itself up to elections and accountability will not have the necessary legitimacy conferred upon it in order to enter into meaningful talks with Israel.

This political turmoil comes against the backdrop of Israeli policies. This means that regardless of the formation of the Palestinian leadership, any new leaders will inevitably appear weak, since they can do very little to change realities on the ground – the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank; the absolute rejection of a shared capital, Jerusalem, and the day to day restrictions on freedom of movement through check points and road blocks.  These are just a handful of well-known examples in the West Bank, without even starting to describe the levels of suffering present within Gaza. Any leader chosen is doomed to appear weak when he is unable to exercise any control over what is happening within his territory, and how this is affecting the lives of ordinary Palestinians.

From those I have spoken to on the ground, the mood on the West Bank at the moment is very precarious. Our Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, said exactly this a couple of weeks ago: "darkness and despair" is the alternative if peace talks aren’t revived.  There is no confidence whatsoever in the political process and, in turn, there is a belief that, despite the recent noises about a resumption of talks and the commitment from Secretary of State John Kerry to inject $4bn into the Palestinian economy, the situation will only continue to deteriorate.

We all have grounds to be nervous, since these features present ‘Arab Spring’ type ingredients: with a lack of legitimate leadership and conditions on the ground continuing to deteriorate, people are running out of hope and there are rumours that without a step change in such conditions a third intifada may be imminent.  Protests have already been rumbling at a frequency above the norm.

So what can be done in the face of this bleak assessment? With the Palestinian leadership in flux, it might be a ripe time to start thinking about who the politicians in Palestine actually represent and whether the international community should consider the inclusion of the party that won 44% of the popular vote and 56% of the seats in Parliament in the last election: Hamas – the Palestinian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.

If the current leadership faces a legitimacy crisis, the inclusion of the political party which represents the views of half the population would be a logical solution to this problem.  Our lessons from Northern Ireland tell us that it is when we bring people into the political process that sustainable solutions can be found and violence can be curtailed. Hamas’s inclusion in the political process would prevent it acting as a spoiler, since it is through diplomacy that political channels are strengthened and parties have a voice through diplomatic engagement – and therefore do not feel the need to resort to violence to be heard.  Even if Israel does not wish to engage directly with Hamas, the Palestinians should appoint (elect) an interlocutor who has the legitimacy to negotiate for all the Palestinian people, not just one half of it.

At this critical stage, brave policies are needed to breathe life into this failing peace process. The Middle East is a changing region, and western powers need to keep pace with changing relationships and realities. As first demonstrated in neighboring Egypt, Islamism (political Islam) is growing in popularity, and the Muslim Brotherhood is fast becoming the reality of the day across the Middle East.

| First published on the ConservativeHome website