Proof that Israel and Hamas can talk

By Yossi Mekelberg, October 19, 2011

The surprising agreement reached last week between the Israeli government and Hamas raises questions and concerns among Israelis and Palestinians alike.

It begs the question as to why negotiations were so protracted and did not reach a successful conclusion earlier. Was the price paid too high? And what are the long term implications of such a swap for the future of both Israelis and Palestinians, and for reaching a peace agreement in the foreseeable future?

It is both the weakened standing of the Israeli government - rather than its strength - and the events in the wider Middle East that enabled this agreement.

Hamas has experienced a decline in public support while the Palestinian Authority has shown more initiative and creativity.

First, the PA embarked on successful economic and institutional reforms. Then they succeeded in bringing Palestinian statehood back to the centre of international debate, culminating in gaining the support of a majority of UN members.

This has opened a new window of communication between Hamas and Israel

Back in the spring of this year, it seemed as if both movements had forged a unity agreement. Such an agreement was aimed at reuniting the West Bank and Gaza and also starting a process of reconciliation, five years after both sides were separated following a civil war.

A coalition government had the prospect of presenting to the world a united front when it was about to ask the international community to recognise a new state alongside Israel. The agreement was left in tatters when both sides were unable to agree on the identity of the future prime minister or any other key figures in government.

The failure of this agreement to transform relations between the two movements increased the suspicion, even animosity, between Fatah and Hamas throughout the summer.

The PA focused on institution-building, led by Salam Fayyad. This was accompanied by a very powerful diplomatic campaign led by Mahmoud Abbas in preparation for the vote at the United Nations.

Hamas responded with an outright rejection of the PA's strategy and tried to derail it.

This strained relations even further, in what can be regarded as a major miscalculation by Hamas's leaders. It left them in the weakest position since they won the Gaza elections back in January 2006.

It was time for Hamas to deliver some success. Facilitating the release of more than 1000 prisoners would, in the eyes of Palestinian society and at least for a short while, provide a political and moral boost.

Meanwhile, the Syrian uprisings and the uncertainty surrounding Hamas's patrons in Damascus forced a new sense of urgency on the terror group. Israel also recognised the time to reach a deal on Shalit was running out, as the Middle East is changing rapidly.

The deal has opened a new window of communication between Hamas and Israel. The argument that they cannot talk to each other is not a valid one any more, if it ever was. This episode demonstrates that when it is in the interest of both sides to negotiate and even reach an agreement, they are capable of doing so.

It remains to be seen whether a final status agreement and an end to one of the most protracted conflicts in modern history is as worthy of their attention.

Yossi Mekelberg is Programme Director of International Relations at Regent's College and Associate Fellow, MENA Programme, Chatham House

Last updated: 11:49am, October 19 2011