Back to 1967

Alastair Crooke

Prospect, March 23, 2006

On the face of it, the Hamas refusal to recognise Israel seems perverse: plainly Israel 'exists.' Tel Aviv is a large modern city that shows no sign of sliding into the sea. To us in the west, this posture has the taint of ideological backwardness. Hamas, however, is neither stuck in the past nor unable 'to do politics.' What it is doing is identifying a key failure of the Israeli-Palestinian political process since the Oslo accords were signed in 1993 which is the omission of any clear outline of Palestinian rights.

What Hamas is saying in refusing to recognise Israel is that while the west understands, and indeed feels, the narrative of the Jews, there has been no similar recognition of the sufferings undergone by the Palestinians in and since 1948, when villages were destroyed, many were killed and thousands fled to the refugee camps, where those who survive remain. (I recently met one in the Sabra and Shatila camp in Lebanon. This proud woman still kept her father's seal of office as mayor of his village from the time of the founding of Israel.)

Hamas believes that recognition of this Palestinian narrative should take the form of an affirmation of the Palestinian rights to a state based on Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian lands conquered in 1967. It may surprise readers that this is not already the case: we recognise the right of Israel to a state within secure borders, and it might seem obvious that we have also outlined Palestinian rights to a state shaped on the lines of 1967. In fact, we have not. UN resolution 242 refers to withdrawal from lands conquered in 1967. But Israel successfully lobbied to have the word 'the' dropped from the resolution's sentence 'withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from (the) territories occupied in the recent conflict.' Israel interprets this to mean that the amount of land from which they withdraw is for them to decide in negotiations with the Palestinians.

Bill Clinton, at the time of the last Camp David talks in 2000, came close to setting out signposts for the destination of talks when he outlined his ten-point plan. But when Clinton asked former senator George Mitchell to report on the causes of the intifada, we (I was a member of Mitchell's staff) were forbidden by the incoming Bush administration to signpost the likely shape of a Palestinian state. The Mitchell report outlined three components to a solution: end the violence, build confidence and start talking. The fourth chapter, 'and talk about what?' which was the obvious sequel, was denied to us. I recall talking to the US official, Flynt Leverett, who helped draft the 'road map' before it was adopted by the international quartet of the US, the UN, the EU and Russia. He told me that he had made explicit reference in the first drafts to a Palestinian state on the basis of the lands occupied in 1967 with Jerusalem as its capital; but twice this reference was removed on instructions from above. Leverett has emphasised that the widely held view that the road map would lead to a Palestinian state on the lines of 1967 has no basis in terms of the wording of the document.

Hamas is asking for this omission to be rectified. In asymmetrical negotiations between parties of such different weight and military strength, it is not surprising that the party with few cards to play wants to know what is on the table before it begins to show its hand. If this is done, Hamas has said, it will be able to deal with the reality of Israel. Indeed, accepting Israel's physical reality will be hard to avoid given that Hamas wants an armistice to be negotiated to include borders, customs, passage and overflights.

Does this fall short of accepting Israel's legitimacy? In one sense it does: it is unlikely that Hamas would ever accept the legitimacy of what happened to Palestinians in 1948 as a result of events that happened earlier in Europe. But there is a solution, derived from religious categories. No observant Jew can deny God's gift of all the promised land to the Jewish people. Jews manage this by dividing time into redeemed time and unredeemed time. In redeemed time, God's promise will be fulfilled. In unredeemed time, we have to deal with reality, and make compromises. Similarly no observant Muslim can deny the waqf, the endowment of Arab lands dedicated to Islam, of which Palestine is a part. Thus Hamas can accept reality, but it cannot say that Israel, and the way in which it came into being is 'legitimate.'

The way to solve the recognition issue, and to put the political process on the sound footing it never had, is as Hamas says an affirmation of the parameters of the state to which Palestinians have the right to aspire.

This should not be impossible. President Bush in his speech of 26th May 2005 said that the armistice line of 1949 should be the basis of talks, and that any change to it can only come about by mutual agreement. He explicitly indicated that Jerusalem was to be a part of any arrangement.