Israel is talking with Hamas?

A gentleman’s dialogue with Hamas
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS – Israel remains puzzled on how to handle the Palestinian military group Hamas.

Former chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization Yasser Arafat could not eliminate its leadership, nor could his successor, Palestinian National Authority (PNA) President Mahmoud Abbas.

A war in December 2008 failed at bombing the military group out of existence. Boycotting Hamas and turning the international community against it also did not work. Launching a media smear campaign to make it look like a chain in the global network of terrorism, something similar to al-Qaeda, has also failed to reduce Hamas’ power and popularity in the Palestinian Territories, or its legitimacy in the Arab and Muslim world.

The argument pretty much applies to what was being said and

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// ]]>debated in the upper echelons of power in Israel during the 1970s and 1980s when the question of the day was: How to deal with Arafat’s Fatah? Waging war against it in Lebanon and Jordan did not work, hunting down its leaders in Europe failed, as did a smear campaign by the United States.
Eventually, Israel succeeded in sidelining Fatah – quite intentionally – by making its leaders cabinet ministers and members of parliament in the government that was created after the Oslo Accords of 1993.

In a classic case of power corrupting non-state players, this worked perfectly well with Arafat’s team. Fatah the resistance – as people knew it since the 1960s – was finished the day its leaders came to power in the PNA.

But even that did not work with Hamas after it came to power in Gaza 2006, winning a landslide victory against Fatah. Israel still refused to deal with the Palestinian group, forcing hardliners in Hamas to return to what they knew best: launching from the trenches of Palestine an underground war against Israel.

The more Israel refused to deal with Hamas, the more popular Hamas became on the Palestinian street. Four years ago, moderates in Hamas – fed up with being treated as outlaws for far too long – longed to be courted as international statesmen, rather than just guerilla warriors.

They grew fixated on elevating the living conditions of Palestinians through ballots rather than bullets, agreeing to hold government office in a system that was ironically produced by the Oslo Accords of 1993. Paying wages on time to civil servants, getting running water and electricity to homes, raising salaries and attracting foreign investment suddenly became a high priority for the leaders of Hamas.

One argument floating in international circles in 2006 was that, in order to prevent Hamas from being a state-within-a-state in Palestine, why not make Hamas “the state” in Palestine. Once it shouldered responsibility for security and nation building, Hamas would theoretically become too busy to wage war against Israel.

Although this might have been true for certain Hamas figures within Palestine, those abroad represented by Khaled Meshaal were well aware of the trappings of power and warned their comrades not to walk the same path that Fatah did in 1993.

Today, however, we are starting to sense a transformation in Hamas – a Hamas made wiser and more pragmatic, with the advancement in age and the dramatic changes in the US policy vis-a-vis the Middle East after the exodus of George W Bush from the White House.

In the past, Hamas leaders used to frown on any US meddling in Middle East affairs, refused to recognize the Oslo Accords, and were categorically against any settlement with Israel. Anything less than the Palestine of 1948 was a red line for the leaders of Hamas.

Earlier this year, however, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya met a group of US doctors visiting the Gaza Strip and expressed a desire to engage with the Barack Obama administration provided it could deliver a sustainable peace that guaranteed a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, while maintaining the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Last month, Meshaal used the word “peace” (salam) instead of the traditional “truce” (hudna), saying that Hamas would accept the borders of 1967. Hamas has also said that it would not obstruct the Arab peace initiative of 2002, which calls for collective Arab peace with Israel if all occupied Arab land is restored to the Arabs.

What Hamas was effectively telling the world was: “If you want somebody who can deliver in the Palestinian Territories, you have to talk to us. We are legitimate and strong – gone are the days of Fatah being your only interlocutor in Palestine.”

The US after all was able to swallow its pride and deal with Fatah – despite all the luggage on Fatah’s back – so there was no reason, theoretically, not to deal with Hamas. If talking directly to Hamas was too difficult for the US, then they could conduct this dialogue through credible go-betweens, like the Syrians.

Now the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are starting to fall into place. On January 9, 2009, Britain’s Guardian newspaper wrote that “sources close to the [Obama] transition team” will change course via Hamas and initiate “low-level clandestine approaches” towards the Palestinian group.

That would require a change in US mentality – both at the media level, on the street and in American officialdom – but it would also require changing a 2006 US Congress law banning any kind of assistance to the Islamic group.

The US State Department would also have to cross Hamas off the terrorist list that it produces annually. Voices are already being heard coming out of Washington, however, calling for engagement with Hamas.

Richard Hass, a diplomat under Bush who was earmarked to become Obama’s Middle East envoy, supports low-level contacts with Hamas. James A Baker, former secretary of state now based at the Baker Institute at Rice University in Houston, was quoted in Newsweek as saying that Obama must involve Hamas in any peace process in the Middle East. Baker said, “You cannot negotiate peace with only half the Palestinian polity at the table.”

Richard W Murphy, a veteran American diplomat and former ambassador to Syria, added, “I don’t think it will happen quickly, but I think it is inevitable. Hamas is, in my opinion, a legitimate representative of part of the Palestinian community.”

Grabbing at the Hamas initiative will not be easy for the US. It will be opposed heavily both by hardliners in the US and by Abbas. If such a dialogue were to commence, the Palestinian leader would suddenly find himself very insignificant.

Dialogue with Hamas would empower the group and grant it de facto legitimacy in Gaza. Another strong opponent to such dialogue – should it happen – would be Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who wants all Palestinian affairs to run through Cairo, and he would work against any deal that bypassed Egypt. Any “deal” between Obama and Hamas would further undercut his efforts to rebrand Egypt in the region.

A third opponent, not so obvious this time, would be al-Qaeda. The terrorist organization is not comfortable with a pragmatic Obama, nor with a pragmatic Hamas. Al-Qaeda wants Obama to turn into another Bush. The logic behind any attacks on US targets would become increasingly futile if Obama were hammering out solutions to the Palestinian conflict, withdrawing from Iraq and talking to Hamas. The more Obama turns a blind eye to groups like Hamas, the happier fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden will be.

French analyst Olivier Roy wrote that it was now “time to consider” the option of talking to Hamas. Another Frenchman, this time a former ambassador, Yves Aubin de la Messuziere, echoed these calls after visiting Hamas twice, in 2007 and 2008. David Grossman, an Israeli peace activist who lost a son during the Lebanon war of 2006, even wrote it in the Israeli Ha’aretz newspaper, putting it bluntly, “We must speak to the Palestinians. We must speak also to those who do not recognize our right to exist.” He added, “Instead of ignoring Hamas … we would do better to take advantage of the new reality that has been created by beginning a dialogue with them immediately.”

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria

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