Engaging Hamas, Why Didn’t I Think of That?

How would Israel react if the International Community voided Netanyahu's victory because the man is too conservative?

It is very clear – particularly after the murder of four Israeli settlers – that Hamas is far from the angelic, democratic Fatah party.  It has openly opposed the peace talks and has supported actions meant to undermine the efforts by Palestinian President Abbas and Israeli PM Netanyahu.  The group seems to have spurned negotiations completely in favor of armed resistance and, consequently, Hamas has been completely shut out of the peace negotiations – indeed, the group has been politically shut out by the US and Israel for years.  I have long been a proponent of moving to engage the Islamic group, not as some reward for what is occasionally violent behavior, but rather as a pre-requisite to peace.

Noam Sheizaf recently wrote an article calling for such an engagement of the Islamic group that rules over Gaza.  Sheizaf underlines how Hamas had democratically won the Palestinian elections, only to see the elections nulled and never rescheduled.  Sheizaf asks, what if that same situation occurred in Israel?  What is Netanyahu’s extreme rightist Likud party won Israeli elections only to see the international community null the results even though the elections were considered free and fair?

[tweetmeme] As Sheizaf says, Hamas is here to stay.  The group is not going to simply disappear because the west doesn’t like its rocky past.  Indeed, Hamas is and will continue to play a large role in Palestinian politics.  Excluding Hamas from negotiations is only building up more obstacles to peace and further dividing the Palestinian political elite.  From Sheizaf:

When the Israeli public elected again and again a rightwing leaders who never recognized the Palestinians’ right for independence (or for full civil rights within the state of Israel), the world was asked to respect the Israeli democracy and hope that with time, the political process and basic realities of the conflict would change these leaders’ views. To some degree, it’s actually happened. But when the Palestinians elected a political party which wouldn’t recognize Israel, the result of the elections was suspended – though their integrity was never questioned – and new ones weren’t held. No wonder that Hamas took power by force where it could, and than violently made both Jerusalem and Ramallah remember that they can’t ignore it.

Would the Likud have acted differently if it won the elections and was kept out of power through the intervention of foreign powers? The scenario is so hypothetical that it’s not even possible to answer such question. But let’s take it even further: what happens if under these conditions, the losing party – let’s say Labor – signs an agreement in which it is to evacuate settlements and give up East Jerusalem? I think that the only question iswhen violence will break, not if. The same goes for Hamas and the Palestinian society. Imagine what happens the day President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayad give up the right of return, or accept the presence of Jewish settlements blocks.

If we are to be serious about these peace talks, it should be understood that there won’t be an agreement and there won’t be peace without Hamas. It’s something most Israelis and even Americans won’t like to hear, but from a Palestinian perspective, Hamas is no different from Likud. Not because it is an extreme movement, but because it’s a well rooted and legitimate political power, too large to be ignored.

I would have loved things to be different. I think Israel should have made a more generous deal with the PLO in the eighties or nineties, so it wouldn’t have to deal now with an Islamic party which has some very radical elements in it. But that’s water under the bridge. Hamas is here to stay, so better have it as part of the political process than as the worlds’ outcast.

Having Hamas won’t be easy. It might make a “final” agreement much harder to get, but the chances of such an agreement to actually work will be much higher.

Niall O’Dowd, the secret conduit between Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and the White House in the years 92′-94′, wrote last week in the Huffington Post that an American willingness to talk to Hamas might be the out-of-the-box idea that could jump start a real process, much in the way that the Clinton Administration’s decision to grant Gerry Adams a US visa help convince the IRA to call for a complete ceasefire. I might add that it was a US decision to recognize the PLO in 1988 – when talks with the organizations’ officials were still illegal in Israel – that paved the way for the direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the nineties. It’s time for another such bold move.

Photo from In Place of Fear

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