Sometimes the biggest problem with negotiations is how to get them
started. The Middle East has been stuck in this problem for some months
now. The new Hamas-led government clearly wants to talk to Israel –
there would have been no point in Hamas running for election otherwise.
But it doesn’t know how to start.

The Israelis, understandably enough, baulk at negotiations with
people who refuse to recognise their right to exist. Hamas, equally
understandably, wants to save recognition of Israel for the
negotiations themselves, rather than make the key concession beforehand
without getting anything in return. Result: deadlock, with increasing
violence and a financial crisis in the Palestinian territories.

A possible way out has been produced by a group of Palestinian
prisoners in Israeli jails, representing both Hamas and its rivals.
Their proposals involve implicit recognition of Israel, and while some
features would be unacceptable to the Israeli government, they may
amount to a basis for negotiations.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas (from the rival Fatah group) had
given Hamas until yesterday to agree to the proposals, failing which he
threatened to call a referendum on them. Today, however, he extended
that deadline
by three days.

The extension suggests that agreement might be possible: Hamas
prime minister Ismail Haniyeh said “We still have a chance to make this
dialogue a success”. But it may also serve Hamas’s political interests, in terms of
relations with its own hard-liners, to be forced into compromise by a
referendum vote (polls show 77% of Palestinians in favour of the
proposals) rather than willingly give ground at this stage of the game.

And as an editorial in today’s Times points
out, “Hamas can scarcely quarrel with a proposal that has been drawn up
by men jailed in Israel, whose credentials as opponents of Israeli
policy can hardly be questioned.”

Either way, a popular vote is clearly a better way for Hamas and
Fatah to resolve their differences than violence in the streets – 16
people have been killed in recent weeks. That was the big lesson of
January’s Palestinian election, and it would be a pity for it to be
forgotten so soon.

Peter Fray

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