Malcolm Rifkind: The gunmen can be defeated

Hamas will wish to show that it can provide stable government
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The Independent Online

The main beneficiary of Hamas's stunning victory in the Palestinian elections could be Bibi Netanyahu, the hardline former Israeli prime minister.

Israelis, of all political persuasions, are shocked that the organisation that sent in the suicide bombers who murdered hundreds of men women and children over the past few years, will now be forming the new Palestinian government.

When people are frightened they choose security over compromise and concession. That will be the choice put before the Israeli electorate in late March and Netanyahu's prospects are far stronger than they were a few days ago. Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon's successor, has made it clear that he, too, would not negotiate with Hamas, but the blow to the peace process could appear to remove the whole rationale for the breakaway party that Sharon formed when he split with Likud.

Europe and America are also in a dilemma. The European Union, as much as the Bush administration, has designated Hamas as a terrorist organisation with whom they would not deal. While there are already differences emerging on the two sides of the Atlantic as to whether financial assistance can continue to be given to a Palestinian authority dominated by Hamas, the West remains united, at least for now, on the impossibility of serious political dialogue unless and until Hamas renounces terrorism.

The immediate statements of Hamas spokesmen have been uncompromising on the armed struggle and their refusal to recognise the state of Israel. But over the past couple of years , in private conversations, leading Hamas figures have been much more pragmatic. They have envisaged a long-term truce with Israel and an interim solution that allowed a Palestinian state to co-exist with Israel. They have emphasised that their charter, which calls for Israel's destruction, is not like the Koran and could be changed. There have been ceasefires in force from time to time. The most recent outrage may have been the responsibility of a splinter group and not of Hamas itself. They have said that negotiations are not taboo.

One should be careful of such apparent flexibility and reasonableness. It may be a mere tactic to impress the gullible. Their public rhetoric has remained vicious. The alternative explanation may, however, be that, as with the IRA, some, at least, of Hamas's leaders may realise that terrorism and suicide bombing can only lead them into a cul-de-sac. They also know that their election victory was more a Palestinian protest against Fatah corruption and incompetence than a call to jihad and death.

If such an element exists within Hamas's leadership its dramatic victory will encourage them to try to transform Hamas into a political organisation and government and away from terrorism.

Such evolutions have occurred in many parts of the world but they are not inevitable. Many assumed in the 1930s that the Nazis' election victory, and their assumption of the responsibilities of government, would turn Hitler from a demagogue into a pragmatic statesman. Similar assumptions were made about Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

Hamas will, therefore, have to be judged by its deeds and not by its private assurances. Changes of rhetoric would be welcome symbols of change but can, if necessary, be left to the end of the process.

Terrorism and suicide bombing are, however, non-negotiable and should be, for the West as much as for the Israelis. Here the signs are more encouraging. There is a de facto ceasefire in place at the moment. If Hamas indicates that it is going to continue indefinitely, that will enable the United States and the European Union to soften their position. It will also lead to contact between the Israeli authorities and the new Palestinian government.

Hamas will wish to show that it can provide stable and responsible government. Its impressive record on social and welfare reform in the communities that it has already controlled is evidence of seriousness and competence. It is in the interests of the Israelis to help manage this process in the West Bank.

Peace negotiations are, for the time being , inconceivable, but the Israelis will have no difficulty in working with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President. He remains in office with his own direct mandate from the Palestinian people. He is much less able to deliver than before the elections but his role will be important, as it will ensure that there is no vacuum in high-level contact and dialogue.

There is one further reason why there might still be substantial progress after the Israeli elections in April. Long before Hamas's victory, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert were planning to dispense with negotiations as the means to peace and to implement their own radical, unilateral proposals.

This is what actually happened in Gaza, where the Israelis withdrew their military forces and disbanded all their settlements, not as part of an agreed solution with the Palestinians but on the basis of their own judgement as to what was necessary. There is no doubt that Olmert and his colleagues have now accepted that the State of Israel will never have the same boundaries as the Land of Israel. A two-state solution is necessary.

That will now be the programme on which Olmert and the new Kadima party will fight the elections. They would not negotiate with Hamas but they would implement a major evacuation from the West Bank excepting only east Jerusalem and their main settlements. The recently built fence or wall between the two countries would become the de facto border and the Palestinians would be invited to declare their statehood.

This would not be a final peace. But it would allow the early creation of a Palestinian state with reasonable territorial integrity. It would enable the Palestinians to become proper citizens of an internationally recognised country.

It would give time for Hamas and the Israelis to know, if not to love, each other. Such a prospect could also stop Binyamin Netanyahu winning the election.