In a groundbreaking move last week, Israel carried out a prisoner swap agreement previously negotiated with Hamas, the political party that governs the Palestinian Territory’s Gaza Strip. The controversial deal required Israel to release more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners in exchange for an Israeli soldier held captive since 2006. What’s shocking about the compromise is that Hamas is officially labeled by Israel as a “foreign terrorist organization.” While Hamas legitimately won a decisive majority in the 2006 Palestinian Parliamentary elections, Israel refused to recognize Hamas as the official governing authority in the Gaza Strip. So it begs the question: since when did Israel start to negotiate with terrorists? We may very well find that answer by analyzing the history of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy.
The one authority Israel does recognize in the Palestinian territories is the Fatah political party, which was and still is the largest faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (also known as the “PLO”). For decades, more than 100 nations have identified the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. However, it wasn’t until the 1991 Madrid conference that Israel and the United States recognized the PLO as the official governing authority in Palestine. Before then, the US and Israel regarded the PLO as a terrorist organization and were firm in its’ stance that the PLO could not be a party to peace negotiations. That all changed when the PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist in peace and accepted the UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, which rejected violence and terrorism. As a result, Israel officially recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and immediately began diplomatic relations.
However, no such change in political viewpoint has occurred with Hamas. Hamas has declared Israel its sworn enemy and refuses to acknowledge any peace plan that recognizes Israel’s right to exist. So if Israel refused to hold talks with the PLO back in the 1980s, why didn’t it hold true to its historical stance this time around with Hamas? This is a difficult question, but it seems that when the people cry loud enough, the politicians begin to listen. In a February 2008 Haaretz (Israel’s oldest newspaper) poll, nearly two-thirds of Israelis favored holding direct talks with Hamas about a cease-fire and the potential release of captives. This public opinion was further reinvigorated in a late 2009 poll conducted by the same newspaper, which held that the majority of Israeli citizens supported some form of dialogue with Hamas. Interestingly, the same public sentiment rumblings occurred shortly after the 1988 Palestinian uprising termed the Intifada. While Israeli government officials refused to sit down with PLO officials, the majority of Israeli citizens supported the move in an attempt to arrive at a non-violent resolution to the ongoing and recurring conflict. Ultimately, the government conceded albeit behind its smoke and mirrors ploy requiring acceptance of certain UN resolutions.
It would seem that Israel is now repeating what it soon realized with the PLO in the early 1990s, that without a legitimate representative partner recognized by the people, there can be no real foundation for peace. That party is not Fatah, at least not alone. In reality, how could it be? Hamas enjoys the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian Parliament. What sense does it make to negotiate the terms of a peace deal with a political party that was not put into power by its own countrymen? In fact, the Fatah party themselves recognized their own futility earlier this year by agreeing with Hamas to dissolve all political organizations and unite to form one government in 2012.
It seems that today’s events is a sign that Israel has come to grips with the fact that it must deal with Hamas to have any real shot at peace. Here’s hoping that Israel’s willingness to compromise will lead to a renewed hope for peace in a land desperate for some good news.
For a video account detailing the swap, click here Prisoner Swap