Throughout the history of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, opponents of reconciliation have often invoked violence and incitement in order to derail the very notion of progress.
Such was the case during the first ten years of serious negotiations, when radicals on both sides proved to be quite successful at killing off the prospects of an accord. After the historic Oslo Agreement in 1993, Palestinian militants in the West Banka and Gaza launched a devastating wave of terrorist attacks against Israel proper, which resulted not only in the deaths of over 1,000 Israelis but the virtual termination of goodwill between Jews and Palestinians. The historic concessions that were made by the compassionate Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 cost him his life at the hands of a far-right Israeli assassin. And of course, who can forget the Camp David Summit hosted by former President Bill Clinton in 2000, which seemed so close to an agreement but was in reality so far away. (You might remember that the only thing that these talks produced was another intifada.)
Yet despite all of that history, people seemed somewhat surprised when violence broke out in the West Bank a few days ago. The incident was reported as a drive-by shooting against Israeli civilians near the town of Hebron. Hamas quickly claimed responsibility for the attack (which left four Israeli citizens dead) as a violent signal of protest to the ongoing discussions between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The response to the attack has been predictable. Israelis are downright appalled that violence has once again struck at the center of innocence. Yet surely they expected something like this to happen?
Abbas is a bit embarrassed, for the West Bank is usually described as a newly minted success story. Indeed, the territory has been routinely quiet over the past three years, in stark contrast to the 1990s, when terrorists would flood into Israel from camps in the West Bank.
And Americans are just as upset as the Israelis, issuing a White House statement condemning the attack in the harshest terms. Meanwhile, the Palestinian security forces have begun a crackdown on Hamas operatives inside the West Bank.
The good news so far is that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been smart enough to press ahead with the talks as planned. He no doubt recognizes that his negotiating partner has absolutely no control over the activities of Hamas, and is therefore willing to give him a pass on this latest incident. The question is whether he will continue to give Abbas a pass if these types of attacks continue. I suspect that the current niceties would soon blow away if Hamas steps up its operations, in which case we might as well pack up and go home.
Thankfully, we haven’t come to that point yet. But Hamas isn’t a dumb organization. They fully recognize that time is on their side, and they also recognize that just the right amount of terrorism will sabotage the participants’ will for a complete resolution. Spoilers have been doing this for years, and Hamas is no different.
But perhaps Hamas is signaling something else through these shootings. Conventional wisdom would tell you that Hamas is completely opposed to direct talks with Israel in any form and they may be still firmly committed to that line. But perhaps this is Hamas’ not-so-subtle-way of reminding Abbas and Netanyahu that they too are a major player in this conflict.
Thus far, the United States, Europe, Israel, and some members of Fatah have written off Hamas as a partner and refused to reach out to their representatives. Hamas has been in the dark ever since its victorious 2006 parliamentary elections, totally isolated from the international community and virtually delegitimized in the mainstream Arab world as a political force.
This shooting, especially gruesome, changes this entire calculus at least for the short term. Indeed, the killings quickly received the attention of the international media. And more importantly, it solicited a response from both the United States and Israel.
Hamas is back on the map. And in its own perverse way, may be trying to play ball.