GAZA CITY — The resumption of direct peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis has broken 20 months of stalemate, and marked the entry of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into this round of diplomacy. But these difficult talks face significant challenges from outside the negotiating room, particularly from Hamas, which is intent on ensuring that nothing happens without its approval.

Hamas refuses all direct peace negotiations with Israel, and has vowed to derail the current talks through violence. Their first blow came on the eve of the talks, when the al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, carried out an ambush on Israeli settlers in Hebron, killing four people.

Hamas has vowed to continue launching its attacks from inside the West Bank, but not from Gaza. This follows from Hamas leaders’ frequent statements since the 2008 Gaza war that they do not want to provoke another Israeli attack, which could cost them their governing position.

Israel does not recognize a distinction between Hamas-planned attacks from the West Bank and from Gaza. However, a large-scale Israeli assault on Hamas’ Gaza redoubt in response to the West Bank killings could bring the negotiations to a halt.

Hamas’ strategy is to expose the Palestinian Authority’s weakness by demonstrating that it cannot control the West Bank, as it promises in negotiations. Moreover, Hamas is well aware that their attacks cause Israel to insist even more strongly on security as the centerpiece of any agreement.

This, in turn, puts the spotlight on ongoing security cooperation between Israel, the P.A. and the United States, again undermining the P.A.’s claims to represent the Palestinian people.

Rhetoric aside, Hamas’ opposition to direct talks with Israel is intended to make clear to the U.S. that Hamas is central to the political reality of the region and cannot be ignored. If Hamas is not part of the process, there will be no process.

Hamas insists that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not have the legitimacy to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians, and that any deal he reaches with Israel is not binding. Hamas claims to be the Palestinians’ true representative, having won the majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in January 2006 (the PLC’s term expired in January 2010, but fresh elections have yet to be held).

As Hamas knows, the U.S. holds the key to ending the political isolation imposed on it after its victory in 2006. Indeed, Hamas leaders recently acknowledged sending messages to the Obama administration calling for dialogue.

The most recent note, sent through a group of visiting American academics, asked the U.S. government to take a more balanced position in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Hamas, for its part, has expressed its willingness to accept a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, subject to a return of all refugees and Israel’s release of all Palestinian prisoners. But Hamas has not taken what the U.S. considers the critical step of recognizing Israel — and thus accepting a two-state solution.

For now, Hamas and the Palestinians of Gaza are excluded from the peace talks, which means that the negotiations will most likely not lead to an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But every day that Gazans are left to stew in an unhealthy mix of siege, poverty and unemployment is a day that strengthens the Hamas hardliners.

The U.S. has invested much in shuttle diplomacy to bring Netanyahu and Abbas to the negotiating table and is not ready to see these talks collapse. But the continuing U.S. boycott of Hamas reinforces the logic of those who are trying to sabotage the negotiations. What do they have to lose?

The future of these direct peace talks thus depends not only on Netanyahu and Abbas, but also on how they relate to the extremists within their camps. Will Netanyahu abandon his ideological rhetoric, negotiate seriously with the Palestinians, and make the needed concessions? Can the Palestinians rise to the political moment and take advantage of the pressure coming from U.S. President Barack Obama?

The stakes are high, and failure would be costly to Americans, Israelis and Palestinians. If the talks collapse, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East will be further discredited, and nothing will remain to keep the parties from launching another round of conflict.

For Palestinians, this is likely to be Abbas’ last chance. He is wagering his scant remaining authority on the talks’ success, and Palestinians will be counting down his days in office should he fail.

For Netanyahu, perhaps maintaining the status quo will be seen as a victory, at least in the short term. But Israel’s margin for strategic error will shrink even further.

Meanwhile, Hamas bides its time. A failure of Palestinian-Israeli talks would only prove Hamas’ basic point: Nothing moves forward without us.

Mkhaimar Abusada is a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. © 2010 Project Syndicate

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