Engaging Hamas: The Only Chance for Peace?

So far, Hamas has been able to blame Gaza's problems on Israel. Lifting the siege forces Hamas to choose between resistance and governance.

The most recent issue of Foreign Affairs was dedicated to issues in the Middle East and included interesting essays on Hamas, Israel’s nuclear arsenal and the false dichotomy of moderates or militants that the United States assumes in its Middle Eastern policy. I’ll comment on the other two articles when I have time to sit and digest them, but I will focus on the Hamas essay for the moment.

I have long argued against the current American/Israeli policy surrounding Gaza and Hamas. It is short-sighted and untenable; the siege of Gaza by Israel and Egypt is doing very little to weaken Hamas and ignoring the Islamic group is resigning peace talks to failure. Despite rumors of a financial crisis, Hamas has only grown stronger since taking over control of Gaza; indeed, the unofficial cease-fire has allowed the group to rearm and to retrain its military, making Hamas politically and militarily stronger than it was in 2006.

Furthermore, there is evidence – if one looks at actions more than words – that Hamas is willing to accept Israel’s existence along the 1967 borders, leading many – including Efraim Halevy, the former director of Mossad, the Israeli secret service, and Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council – have called for the beginning of negotiations between Hamas and Israel.

In Foreign Affairs,Daniel Bymann argues that the benefits of successfully engaging Hamas are far too important to ignore and, perhaps more interestingly, even failure would boost Israel and the more moderate Palestinians.

Bymann begins by reiterating what has been said before, a peace deal between Fatah and Israel cannot be forged without some agreement from Hamas. By refusing to engage Hamas, Israel and Fatah are expanding the political consequences that Hamas will face if negotiations are successful. Thus, there is a clear political incentive for Hamas to disrupt the negotiation – a Fatah success delegitimizes both Hamas vis-a-vis Fatah and the strategy of resistance vis-a-vis negotiation. Moreover, if talks fail because of Hamas inspired or lead violence, both Fatah and Israel will be wiping egg off their faces.

[tweetmeme] Secondly, the current Gaza policy is failing miserably. The fallout from Cast Lead and the Mavi Marmara incident has given Hamas a significant boost among both Palestinians and internationals, who are tending to see Hamas as the victim of Israeli fanaticism. Militarily, Hamas has indigenously developed longer range missiles and rockets while importing knowledge, manpower and weapons from Iran. Finally, the party has also found a way to succeed economically by taxing the smuggling tunnels and by receiving substantial support from Iran.

Finally, Bymann argues, negotiating with Hamas would force the group to choose between violent resistance and effective government. Currently, the blockade is rendered ineffective by the smuggling tunnels; civilians are suffering more than the government, thus creating a need for good governance. Due to its increased strength, Hamas has been able to develop its political legitimacy while maintaining its grasp on resistance to Israel. The risks of negotiating with Hamas are clear for Israel (resumed attacks, predominantly), but they are also not inconsequential for Hamas (delegitimization of resistance movement, loss of power relative to Fatah…). Though, despite these risks, an engaged Hamas is both possible and ideal. From Bymann:

If Hamas cannot be uprooted, can it be calmed enough to not disrupt peace talks? Maybe — and the chance is worth pursuing. Although often depicted as fanatical, Hamas has shown itself to be pragmatic in practice, although rarely in rhetoric. It cuts deals with rivals, negotiates indirectly with Israel via the Egyptians, and otherwise demonstrates that unlike, say, al Qaeda, it is capable of compromise. Indeed, al Qaeda often blasts Hamas for selling out. Hamas has at times declared and adhered to cease-fires lasting months, and some leaders have speculated that a truce lasting years is possible. And although Hamas has refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist, its leaders have also said they would accept the UN-demarcated 1967 borders between Israel and the Palestinian areas as a starting point for a Palestinian state. Perhaps the most important sign of pragmatism has been Hamas’ general adherence to its cease-fire after Operation Cast Lead.

By ending the siege on Gaza in exchange for a cease-fire, Israel is giving Hamas a choice between violent resistance and governance, with increased imports and exports, Hamas will need to provide better services to Gazans and will no longer be able to blame Israel for its short-comings. Gazans, says Bymann, “are sick of empty slogans of resistance; giving them a better life will require Hamas to make compromises.” This choice of governance or resistance could also drive a wedge between the more moderate factions of Hamas and the hardliners, weakening the movement completely while giving strength to Fatah in Gaza:

Right now, Hamas gains from the perception that Israel and the international community seek to crush the Palestinians. Opening the crossings into Gaza would dispel this impression and place Hamas in a difficult spot politically: it would have to give up either on resistance or on governance.

If, however, Hamas broke the cease-fire, Israel would have much stronger international support in retaliating and Hamas would lose political power for instigating Israel’s wrath and continuing the siege. There are, of course, severe risks to opening up to Hamas, there is no other sustainable option. The siege is demonstrably broken and flawed, military reoccupation is neither politically nor morally feasible and waiting for Hamas to disappear is folly. By lifting the siege in return for a formal cease-fire (in addition to prisoner exchanges) Israel is giving Hamas a clear choice with clear consequences. Importantly, failure of such a concession would hurt Hamas domestically and internationally while giving Israel political cover to economically (re-establishment of the siege) and militarily (Cast Lead II) punish Hams intransigence.

Hamas is not going to simply dissolve because Israel and the United States desires it to. Ignoring this reality is risking the current round of peace talks and giving Hamas the incentive to recommence its violent resistance to Israel. Engaging Hamas, on the other hand, has clear benefits and – given the failure of all other options – is the only choice Israel has for making a true peace with its neighbors.

Photo from South Dakota Politics

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