Daniel Byman ("How to Handle Hamas," September/October 2010) correctly argues that peace between Israel and the Palestinians via a two-state solution requires the involvement and acceptance of Hamas. However, he overstates the difficulty of securing Hamas' agreement to a cease-fire and understates the problem of gaining Israel's agreement. Moreover, although Byman acknowledges the importance of Palestinian reconciliation, he does not identify a key reason for its failure.
In June 2008, Hamas agreed to an Egyptian-mediated cease-fire with Israel. Hamas agreed to stop firing rockets into Israel, and Israel agreed not to intervene in Gaza and to gradually increase the number of trucks allowed into Gaza from 100 to 750 per day. Hamas stopped the rockets, although it took them a couple of weeks, and a few after that came from rogue elements. Israel limited the number of trucks to between 150 and 250 per day, and it stopped its incursions into Gaza until November 4. The assault that night and Israel's failure to open Gaza led Hamas to restart its rocket attacks, although Hamas conveyed a readiness to renew the cease-fire if Israel implemented the original agreement. Yet Israel never acknowledged there was a deal, and that remains the crux of the problem.
To assure that negotiations are conducted in the right climate, a cease-fire needs to be worked out with Hamas that can produce an agreed-on public text that would be monitored by the United Nations. Israel has been unwilling to do this for fear that it would strengthen Hamas. That is a legitimate concern, but the only way around it is to promote a Palestinian unity arrangement in which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is recognized as the sole negotiator for the Palestinians.
That is possible only if the United States accepts a slight modification of the three "Quartet conditions," which were initially imposed to prevent Hamas from taking office after it won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. Since then, Hamas has gone 90 percent of the distance toward meeting those conditions. It agreed to accept the first condition, on the recognition of Israel, but only after a final-status agreement incorporates it and it is approved by the Palestinian people in a referendum. It is ready to accept the second condition, on nonviolence in the form of a cease-fire, although it will not renounce violence as an option until the occupation ends. On the third condition, accepting previous agreements, the problem is that the Netanyahu government does not accept the Oslo accords, but if both sides were to accept a final-status agreement, the new deal would supersede previous agreements.
If the United States accepted these changes, reconciliation would become easier, although still not easy, and Abbas could become a full negotiating partner, representing Gaza and the West Bank and Fatah and Hamas on a cease-fire and in final-status talks.
Professor of International Relations, School of International Service, American University