Who will compromise first?

The Palestinian parliamentary elections that produced a Hamas majority have introduced an international role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is seemingly without precedent. The vacuum created by the refusal on the part of both Israel and Hamas to negotiate with one another on matters of crucial importance is the main feature of this situation, but not the only factor encouraging or perhaps mandating an international role.

Thus far the United States, the European Union and Egypt have all lined up behind a set of tough and logical conditions that Hamas must fulfill if a government it forms is to receive their recognition and assistance. Egypt’s General Omar Suleiman, minister of intelligence and President Husni Mubarak’s point man on the Palestinian issue, reiterated those conditions last week: recognition of Israel, total cessation of terrorist activity and acceptance of all the agreements signed between Israel and the PLO.

The Olmert government in Israel is generally pleased with this show of unity and determination, which in fact is also reflected in the position taken by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). But Israelis are also beginning to speak out more openly about the negative role Washington played in creating the current impasse–by pressuring for Palestinian elections regardless of the danger that Hamas would win them. Accordingly, there is also concern in Jerusalem that the Bush government, which has given its blessings to the recent enfranchisement of militant Islamists in Iraq and Lebanon, might eventually drop some of its conditions and engage Hamas, ostensibly for the sake of regional stability and the American-sponsored cause of representative democracy at all costs.

This was clearly the premise that informed Hamas Deputy Political Bureau Chief Mousa Abu Marzook’s rather extraordinary op-ed piece in the Washington Post last week. In language carefully attuned to American values, Abu Marzook appealed to Americans to accept the Hamas victory: "In recognizing Judeo-Christian traditions, Muslims nobly vie for and have the greatest incentive and stake in preserving the Holy Land for all three Abrahamic faiths. A new breed of Islamic leadership is ready to put into practice faith-based principles in a setting of tolerance and unity." Never mind that Hamas claims the Land of Israel/Palestine as exclusive Islamic ground (waqf); that its charter is an exercise in anti-Semitism; and that Muslims are torching Danish legations because of some cartoons: "faith-based principles" sound good to Bush’s Christian evangelical supporters.

One factor that might conceivably impel the West and Egypt to soften their terms could be signs of a more active Iranian and Syrian role in supporting Hamas, and in particular the offer of financial aid to replace western funds. Already Saudi Arabia and Qatar are transferring funds to the PA without conditions, and there are indications that some of the Gulf emirates are prepared to grant financial aid to a Hamas-led Palestinian government as well. Further, additional potential interlocutors between Hamas and Israel are being mentioned: moderate Muslim countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey could, it is suggested by some Palestinians, better work with Hamas to find ways to adapt its positions to political realities.

It now appears that the task of forming a new Palestinian government will take many weeks, if not months. It will be characterized by endless attempts at compromise: fudging Hamas’ rejection of its own extremist positions regarding the use of force and acceptance of Israel’s existence; introducing non-Hamas Palestinians into the next government in key positions that shield Hamas from the necessity of moderating its views and/or negotiating with Israel; finding creative ways to keep the Palestinian Authority afloat financially without giving international donor funds directly to Hamas-controlled ministries.

Israel, which itself has an interest in maintaining both the ceasefire and PA financial stability, and which will be heavily preoccupied in the coming two months with its own elections, will be hard put to maintain close coordination with Egypt and the West on all these issues. Like it or not, we may eventually have to be flexible too, if only to maintain a semblance of unity with our friends and allies and at least a modicum of coexistence with our Palestinian neighbors.