Had Osama bin Laden been killed by American forces, say, one year ago, and had on the following day Ismail Haniyeh, the man in charge of Hamas’ Gaza leadership, condemned the assassination of this “Arab holy warrior,” this would not have been an unusually difficult thing for a person hopeful for peace in the Middle East to deal with.
Such a person would have noted that Hamas is a terrorist group that controls the far smaller area of the Palestinian territories and the one that is boxed in on one side by Israel and on the other by a cooperative Egyptian regime. If the Israelis and the Palestinians are to live side-by-side, this person would have continued, it will be because Israel will make peace with the much more moderate Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank (and whose leader, Mahmoud Abbas, in fact did on Monday welcome the death of the world’s most notorious terrorist). So Hamas praised jihadism, the person considering the event would have said. What’s new? And who cares?
But ever since last week’s announced reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah (the political party that runs the PA) — a deal brokered by Egypt, which is now under new management and which is not so inclined to cooperate with Israel (and whose powerful Muslim Brotherhood party was one of the few other groups to bemoan the death of bin Laden at American hands) — what Hamas says has to be reckoned with. After all, it and the PA are now, together, Israel’s new partner for peace. Which means that yesterday, one of the top guys in Israel’s new partner for peace said that the bin Laden killing represented not a triumph for good but rather “a continuation of the American policy based on oppression and the shedding of Muslim and Arab blood.” Not the sort of sentiment you are hoping to hear from the other side of the negotiating table.
Hamas’ negative take on an event that all decent people in the world have been cheering is not surprising. Both Hamas and Al Qaida are jihadist entities; longtime bin Laden mentor Abdullah Azzam even helped found Hamas. (Bin Laden, being bin Laden, eventually had Azzam killed, but the Al Qaida maven remained sympathetic to Hamas’ goal of eliminating Israel.)
So let’s dispense with the myth that Hamas’ stance on the bin Laden killing was merely a case of “bad PR” on Hamas’ part. This wasn’t PR; this was policy. Hamas was against the killing of bin Laden.
If there is a silver lining to Hamas’ ugly statement, it is that it has helpfully clarified that the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal is one of the worst things to happen to the prospects for Mideast peace. Israel, after all, cannot reasonably be expected to negotiate, much less sign a treaty, with a group that considers Osama bin Laden a hero. You can make compromises — you can make peace — with those with whom you disagree, even vehemently. In fact, the entire Mideast peace process is predicated on just such a compromise and just such a peace. You don’t have to agree, but you do have to be living on the same planet. And people who unequivocally condemn the killing of bin Laden are not living on the same planet as mainstream Israelis; and Israelis shouldn’t be required to move to that planet in order to make peace.
Over the April 30-May 1 weekend, Israel took its first concrete step against the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal by withholding tax revenues that it ordinarily would have transferred to the PA. Before handing over some $90 million, officials in Israel’s finance ministry said they wanted a guarantee that none of the money would end up in Hamas’ hands. While stopping short of opposing this move, U.S. officials responded by asking Israel to quickly meet with PA officials to clear the matter up and get the money where it is needed.
The PA and Hamas are separate as of now, and those funds should (and will) eventually get to the West Bank. But at some point, if the Fatah-Hamas deal goes through, Israel will no longer cooperate with the PA — will not transfer tax revenues, will not cooperate on security, will not do the myriad other things it does every day to enable the PA to govern the West Bank.
And it will no longer be reasonable for the United States to demand that it do so. Many observers noted that that the Fatah-Hamas agreement was likely to highlight many of the distinctions between the two groups; and already, in the opposite responses to the bin Laden news, we have seen that happen. But the more important distinction is the one between Hamas and nearly everyone else — moderate Palestinians, Israelis, Americans, and all the other people in the world for whom May 1, 2011, was the wonderful day that Osama bin Laden met the fate he richly deserved. It is a distinction that made little difference one year ago but all the world today. Peace in the Mideast is not less likely because Hamas likes Al Qaida. Hamas always liked Al Qaida. It is less likely because, suddenly, Hamas’ opinion matters.