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What was Hamas thinking?

The shooting of four Israeli settlers on the West Bank was a brutal crime, and I condemn it as strongly as I condemned Israel's attacks on the civilian population of Gaza or its assault on the Mavi Marmara. Whatever one thinks about the Israeli occupation, shooting civilians in this fashion is never justified.  

I can't say I'm surprised by the event, however, having written earlier this week that we ought to expect spoilers to try to disrupt this latest round of talks. There is no shortage of spoilers on the Israel side either-such as Rabbi Ovedia Yosef, spiritual advisor to the Shas party, who offered his pious hope that "Abu Mazen and all these evil people should perish from this world ... God should strike them with a plague." But to be fair, at least the rabbi didn't actually shoot anybody.  

When I heard the news, my first thought was that the shooting was both a crime and a blunder, because it would only reaffirm Hamas's pariah status and keep them outside the peace process even longer. But then I reconsidered. I think the more important lesson here is that Hamas has already assumed that this latest round of talks will fail, and that this failure will pound the final nail in the coffin of the two-state solution.

As I've said before, that outcome will be a tragedy for all concerned, as well as a serious problem for the United States.  But it also makes me wonder if Hamas is being a lot more far-sighted than the various parties who are sitting down to talks in Washington this week.

Why?  Because if the parties fail to reach a genuine and reasonable two-state solution, we are going to end up with one-state apartheid on the West Bank. That's hardly headline news, of course, insofar as people like Jimmy Carter, Ehud Olmert, and Ehud Barak have warned about this possibility for years. At that point, the conflict will evolve into a Palestinian campaign for political rights within that single state, based on well-established norms of justice and democracy, and it will put Israel and its American patron in a very awkward situation.  

If that happens, Hamas will be in a strong position. Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad will have failed, and Hamas' rejectionism will have been vindicated. Its reputation for probity and superior grass-roots organizing ability will be a powerful asset in the struggle for Palestinian hearts and minds, and those same capacities will also help them resist the inevitable Israeli attempts to suppress them. Their star will be ascending, and the secular and more moderate Fatah will be even less legitimate than it is today.

The best (only?) hope of averting that outcome lies in making the current negotiations a success and ending the occupation once and for all. If Abbas, Obama, and especially Netanyahu realize this, maybe they'll surprise us all and get the job done. No matter how many brutal crimes are committed or hateful speeches are uttered by those who oppose "two states for two peoples."

JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

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