Dealing With the Enemy

The exchange of more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli soldier was brokered by a German mediator and by Egypt, because Israel regards Hamas as a terrorist organization with which it will not negotiate.

But the fact remains that this was a deal Israel cut with Hamas. The question now is whether this show of pragmatism can lead to further developments, with broader ramifications for the Arab-Israeli conflict.

When Hamas took power more than five years ago, I wrote on these pages that the development had a potentially positive side: “Things might now become much clearer. There will be no whitewashing, no Arafat-style double-talk, or endless Abbas impotence. It’s better to deal with a pure enemy: Fight him ruthlessly while he is your enemy, and sit down and talk to him when he is genuinely willing to cut a deal. History has seen such things happen.”

This has happened. Israelis has become weary of the Palestinian Authority, suspecting that the elusive rival has been systematically dodging the negotiating table in the hope of getting better results elsewhere: Through terror in Yasir Arafat’s time; through the United Nations today.

Not so with the Hamas. For Israelis, the organization is simply an enemy. Their answer to the Qassam rockets launched from Gaza was blockade, air attacks, targeted killings and even a full military operation. Hamas, on its part, remained resilient in its determination to fight Israel forever.

The Gilad Shalit case, however, introduced an element of pragmatism into this zero-sum game. Suddenly an ideologue like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in the two books he has edited on terror warns against negotiating with terrorists, has found himself acting against his own strong belief.

Hamas, for its part, has had to compromise on its vow to get its top leaders out of Israeli jails. The prisoners swap materialized because both sides — an ideologue and Islamic zealots — had a lot to gain from it, although not all they wanted. This is a sign of a good deal, when both sides walk away equally dissatisfied.

That Israel should tighten its measures against future kidnappings and exact a heavy personal price from perpetrators of terror goes without saying. At the same time, this show of pragmatism should not be seen as a one-time exception to the rule, but rather carried over to other areas — the economy, to start with.

While the masses in Gaza celebrate the return of their brothers and sisters from Israeli jails, the economy there is ruined, unemployment is extremely high and there is no hope for the young generation.

With a bold move, Netanyahu can have a dramatic impact on the Gaza situation, and indeed on the whole Middle East. He can propose to ease the blockade on Gaza and to look favorably at any measure that would make life easier there.

In exchange, Hamas would commit itself to a 10-year hudna (truce) — a well established notion in Islamic tradition. The Egyptians would surely love to broker such a deal, which would enhance their position as well. And, finally, this would resonate well with the spirit of progress driving the Arab Spring.

This is not a recycling of Shimon Peres’ naïve vision of a “New Middle East” from the 1990s, but rather a down-to-earth idea that can address the basic needs of the people here: an economic horizon for the people in Gaza; security for the Israelis.

After all, Richard Nixon didn’t go to China to reform the Chinese; neither did the visit change America. He gave hitherto mortal enemies a break, allowing them to funnel their energies into more productive channels.

Is this a daydream? Maybe. But for once, when people on both sides are hugging their loved ones, let us be guided by our hopes, and not only by our fears.

By Uri Dromi, the spokesman of the Rabin and Peres governments from 1992 to 1996.

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