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What will Hamas charter change mean for Israel?

Israeli experts disagree on whether expected amendments to Hamas' charter will significantly change the movement’s attitude toward Israel and whether it is wise to open a direct dialogue with the movement.
Yahya Sinwar (L) the new leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and senior political leaders of the Islamist movement Khalil al-Haya (C) Ismail Haniyeh (R) attend the opening of a new mosque in Rafah town in the southern Gaza Strip on February 24, 2017. / AFP / SAID KHATIB        (Photo credit should read SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images)

In the coming weeks, Hamas is due to unveil the draft of a revised charter that softens the movement's positions on the conflict with Israel. Talking to the London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Hamas sources said that the salient changes to the document include recognition of the 1967 borders and replacement of the term “Jews,” described as enemies, with the term “occupiers.” The draft will probably also include an announcement about severing ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas' original charter underscores the affinity between the movement and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, known for its rejection of any diplomatic process with Israel. Nonetheless, the new charter, like the original document, will not include recognition of the State of Israel and will rule out any concession on the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.

Should the charter's expected amendment, especially its recognition of the borders delineating Israel until the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, result in a shift in Israeli policies toward the organization? It depends on whom one asks.

Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, a proponent of dialogue with Hamas, said in May 2016 that the organization’s leadership knows it has no chance of annihilating Israel. In his view, there is no reason to fear Iran’s influence on Hamas, because it has cut itself off from Tehran and aspires to establish contact with Israel. In September 2016, Halevy predicted that in any case, once a solid majority of Palestinians understand that their prospects of getting a state of their own have dissipated, and that negotiations between Israel and the current Palestinian leadership are nothing but a sham, their only recourse will be to adopt Hamas' way.

Nimrod Novick, a former adviser to Prime Minister Shimon Peres and currently a research fellow at the Israel Policy Forum, told Al-Monitor, “Saying unequivocally that today’s Hamas is the same Hamas of a few years ago and the same Hamas of 10 or 20 years from now is far-reaching and pretentious and ignores changes the organization has already undergone.” Novick, also a board member of the Commanders for Israel’s Security, added that Hamas has made it quite clear that it would abide by the wishes of the people. According to Novick’s sources, the new Hamas charter will reaffirm the movement’s commitment to back any arrangement between Israel and the Palestinian leadership — as long as it is put to a referendum and wins the support of the majority of Palestinians.

Novick bemoans that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert refused to give Hamas an opportunity to prove its intentions after receiving verbal and written messages from the movement in 2009 about establishing a dialogue. The organization reportedly conveyed its willingness to open a dialogue with Israel, through a third party, regarding a long-term agreement on coexistence (not a “peace” agreement or an “end to the conflict”). At the time, the Israeli public paid little attention to the messages, even though it included “an effort to achieve a settlement of the core issues” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, apart from the most volatile core issues, that is, Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees. Novick noted that since that missed opportunity, Hamas has become less powerful and less united. He therefore advises that Israel beware of opening any channels of communication with the organization without making significant progress in negotiations with the current Palestinian leadership.

Mati Steinberg, a Jerusalem-based Middle East scholar who served as adviser on Palestinian affairs to Shin Bet chiefs, takes the opposite tack. He argues that not only is there no point in talking to Hamas, but such a move would inflict severe, long-term damage to Israel’s strategic interests. He believes the new Hamas charter will also include a temporary, or possibly even long-term, “hudna” (cease-fire or truce).

“Hamas assumes that Israeli willingness to make do with a hudna with Hamas, replacing a permanent arrangement with the [current Palestinian leadership], would once and for all obliterate the paradigm of an agreement with the [current Palestinian leadership] on territorial division with Israel and install Hamas rule over the West Bank,” Steinberg said. “All those who prattle about a regional initiative on Israeli-Palestinian peace need to know that it is based on the Arab Peace Initiative, which Hamas has rejected out of hand.”

Steinberg foresees that Hamas will continue to reject the Arab Peace Initiative. Therefore, opting for a partial and temporary arrangement with Hamas will weaken the Palestinians' position and render the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative redundant. Steinberg asserted, “Absent an Arab initiative, there will be no regional context for resolving the conflict with the Palestinians.’’

Steinberg therefore proposes a comprehensive view of the Hamas problem in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and of the Palestinian issue and the regional context. Hamas, he said, will not “dirty its hands” with a diplomatic process, but will be forced to accept a regional arrangement to avoid isolation in the Arab and international arena. Such a regional scenario depends, to a large extent, on Israel’s willingness to reach a permanent arrangement that ends its occupation of the West Bank and eases its siege of Gaza, Steinberg said.

A senior Foreign Ministry official who dealt for years with policy planning believes that anyone who thinks negotiating with Hamas is possible is delusional for the simple reason that Hamas is unwilling to talk to Israel. “They have not crossed that Rubicon,” said the official, who spoke with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

“If you ask me personally, if they want to talk to us directly about a diplomatic arrangement, as the Egyptians did at the time, they’re more than welcome.” Nonetheless, he said, from a public diplomacy perspective, Israel would do well to present a positive approach while at the same time taking immediate steps to minimize the risks of violence and to stabilize long-term relations with Gaza. “I, myself, am operating in that direction,” he said.

On the political right, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, there is no perceptible interest in the changes underway in Hamas. The prevailing opinions on the right run the gamut from “There’s no such thing as a Palestinian people” to “First, they have to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people.” As noted, Hamas' draft charter makes no reference to recognition of the State of Israel much less recognition of the state of the Jewish people, which had been one of Netanyahu’s preconditions for relaunching talks with the Palestinians. What a relief. The children of Israel can continue to be frightened with the bogeymen out to wipe them off the face of the earth.

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