On his triumphant return to Gaza several days ago, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal proclaimed that Hamas would never recognize Israel or abandon its claim to all Israeli territory: "Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on an inch of the land.” There can be no doubt that Meshal’s demagogic but empty rhetoric was shocking, irresponsible, and profoundly stupid. Nor can there be any doubt that he has handed Netanyahu and the Israeli right precisely the excuse they want to continue the policy of no negotiations with Hamas—or even, in quite imaginable circumstances, to launch a massive attack on Gaza to destroy Hamas.
Nonetheless, for a number of reasons Meshal’s buffoonery does not justify Israel’s refusal to explore the possibility of a negotiated two-state negotiated settlement with Hamas—or perhaps even with Meshal himself. First, some of what Meshal said was ambiguous, and probably deliberately so: “We will never recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation and therefore there is no legitimacy for Israel, no matter how long it will take." That is, Meshal could be read as saying that Hamas would never recognize the legitimacy of Israel as long as the occupation continues, in which case he was still leaving open the possibility of a negotiated end to the conflict if Israel agrees to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.
In fact, there are a number of strong indications that Meshal has been steadily moving, however inconsistently, towards a negotiated settlement. I provide the evidence for this in my extended discussion of the evolution of Hamas in general and Meshal in particular in my recent International Security article on the 2008-09 Israeli attack on Gaza (http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/22373/just_war_moral_philosophy_and_the_200809_israeli_campaign_in_gaza.html).
Here I can only summarize:
* According to ex-Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, as early as 1997 King Hussein of Jordan conveyed to Israel an offer from Khaled Meshal, then the chief Hamas leader, to reach an understanding on a ceasefire to last 30 years. Israel not only ignored the offer, but a few days later, Israeli operatives tried to assassinate Meshal in Jordan.
*In the past decade Hamas has repeatedly proposed extended ceasefires with Israel, and in fact several of them have gone into effect; it has been Israel rather than Hamas that has broken these truces. In particular, in June 2008 Hamas and the Israeli government agreed to a six month ceasefire, following which—as was the case in previous ceasefires-- Hamas ended its rocket attacks on Israel. Moreover, even though Israel continued its economic blockade of Gaza and its assassinations of Islamic Jihad activists, Hamas not only maintained the ceasefire but successfully prevented most attempts by Islamic Jihad to retaliate against Israel.
*Israel broke the ceasefire on November 4 2008, attacking a Gazan tunnel and killing six Hamas men. This time Hamas retaliated, firing rockets into southern Israel; even so, according to Israeli newspapers, on December 23 the head of Shin Bet told the Israeli cabinet that Hamas was prepared to continue an indefinite truce if Israel ended the blockade and the assassinations. Israel refused these terms, and on December 27 it launched Operation Cast Lead.
Beyond the ceasefires, for a number of years there have been solid indications that Hamas, including Khalid Meshal, has been gradually moving towards—in fits and starts, to be sure-- abandoning its extremist positions and accepting the two state principle. The evidence is considerable; here I will mention only some of it.
In January 2006, shortly after Hamas won the parliamentary elections in Gaza, it sought to convey a message to Israel, through the U.S. government, offering Israel a truce for many years in exchange for a compromise political settlement; neither Israel nor the Bush administration replied to this and additional overtures. Later in 2006 Hamas began to go public with its new position. For example, in May Gazan prime minister Haniyeh told Haaretz that the Hamas government would agree to agree to a long-term truce with Israel if it withdrew to the 1967 lines; a few months later Haniyeh said that “We have no problem with a sovereign Palestinian state over all of our lands within the 1967 borders, living in calm.”
Meshal did not take a harder line than Haniyeh or other Hamas leaders. In late 2006 he said that Hamas could not oppose the unified Arab stance expressed in an Arab League summit conference, which offered Israel full recognition and normalized relations in exchange for a full Israel withdrawal from the occupied territories and a solution to the refugee problem. In April 2008 Meshal went further, stating that Hamas would end its resistance activities if Israel ended the occupation and accepted a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 border.
Thus, until the recent Israeli attack on Gaza, the general direction of both Hamas in general and Meshal in particular was to abandon--in practice, though not in some of its rhetoric--its goal of “regaining all of Palestine.” Consequently, a number of prominent members of the Israeli security establishment, including Ephraim Halevy, the former head of Mossad and the national security adviser in Ariel Sharon’s 2002-03 government and Ami Ayalon, a former head of Shin Bet, and, argued strongly for negotiations with Hamas. In particular, Halevy wrote that even Hamas militants had recognized that their “ideological goal is not attainable and…. are ready and willing to see the establishment of a Palestinian state in the temporary borders of 1967.…They know that the moment a Palestinian state is established with their cooperation, they will be obligated to change the rules of the game: they will have to adopt a path that could lead them far from their original ideological goals.”
What conclusions, then, can be drawn from the latest Meshal rhetoric? In fact, there are a number of reasonable possibilities. First, Meshal has often said different things to different audiences, so there is no reason to assume that his impassioned speech to his Gazan followers and militants represents the “real” Meshal, as opposed to his past statements—public and private—indicating that in practice he will accept a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Of course, a second possibility is simply that Meshal has again changed his mind--especially in light of the latest Israeli attack on Gaza--from fiery and uncompromising militant, to a much realistic position, and now back again to fanaticism. If so, though, then his position could change yet again--especially, of course, in response to an Israeli offer to negotiate with Hamas.
Third, even if the latest Meshal posture is the real one and will never change, it doesn’t follow that there is no one in Hamas for Israel to talk to. There are other Hamas political and military leaders, some of whom might be more moderate than Meshal, if only they had a moderate Israel that was willing to negotiate with them.
In short, there is no basis to the claim that the Meshal speech proves that negotiations with Hamas are impossible. If anything, precisely the opposite is the case: it is only by an Israeli offer to negotiate on the basis of a two-state settlement that the Hamas position can be tested. Of course, the real reason for Israel’s refusal to negotiate even with the Palestinian government in the West Bank, let alone with Hamas, is that it is the Israelis rather than most Palestinians who are opposed to a genuine compromise settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.