Get real, Hamas


WHETHER THE impetus was a shaky cease-fire in the Gaza Strip or President Bush’s visit to the Middle East, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday unexpectedly extended an olive branch to the Palestinians. If the Palestinian Authority -- including the Islamic party Hamas -- doesn’t respond in kind, it will be yet another golden opportunity for Mideast peace squandered.

Speaking against the backdrop of a truce designed to end months of violence in Gaza, Olmert offered to engage Palestinians in new talks to create something even many liberal Israelis once considered unthinkable: an independent Palestinian state.

Declaring that “I hold out my hand in peace to our Palestinian neighbors in the hope that it won’t be returned empty,” Olmert offered to uproot Jewish settlements in the West Bank, reduce the number of checkpoints, unfreeze funds withheld from the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority and release “numerous Palestinian prisoners, including ones who are sentenced to lengthy prison terms.”


In exchange, the nascent state of Palestine, and its Hamas-led Cabinet, would have to recognize Israel’s right to exist, and Hamas would have to return Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured in June. The stage would then be set for negotiations toward the two-state solution envisioned in the “road map” for peace endorsed in 2002 by the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union.

The timing of Olmert’s initiative could cause him political problems at home. Given Israel’s unsatisfying war against Hezbollah in Lebanon last summer, continued violence in the Gaza Strip and disarray in the Palestinian Authority, Olmert was expected to shy away not just from negotiations but from his own proposal for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from some occupied territories.

Especially delicate is Olmert’s willingness to trade captured Palestinian prisoners for Shalit, considering that when Hezbollah guerrillas from Lebanon kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in July for the express purpose of forcing a prisoner swap, Israel responded with a retaliatory attack that eventually killed 1,200 Lebanese (most of them civilians) and 157 Israelis.

It would be a tragedy, most of all for the Palestinians, if Olmert’s initiative were rebuffed. Hamas is not being asked to approve of the creation of Israel half a century ago, only to recognize that the modern Jewish state is a legal government endorsed by the United Nations and deserving of security. It’s not enough for Hamas to enter into a hudna, or 10-year truce -- a scenario floated by Ahmed Yousef, an advisor to Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniya. Hamas’ recognition should be a nonnegotiable issue both for Israel and the United States.

The late Yasser Arafat dawdled and dissembled for years before finally accepting Israel’s existence, a belated accommodation to reality that led to a White House invitation for the erstwhile terrorist and the creation of the Palestinian Authority. If Hamas is willing to recognize the same fact of life, the benefits for the Palestinians could be even more dramatic.