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Cook: No Likelihood of U.S. Breaking with Israel on Hamas Talks

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 19, 2008

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Steven A. Cook, a CFR Middle East expert, says that just as the United States would not break away from Israel and deal directly with the Palestine Liberation Organization before Israel did, so the United States finds itself unable to include Hamas in the Israeli-Palestinian peace dialogue. Hamas controls Gaza, however, and is growing in influence at the expense of the Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas, with whom both Israel and the United States deal.

In 2006, the United States urged the Palestinian Authority to hold elections. The Fatah party lost its control of the government to Hamas, which was and is on the U.S. terrorist list. Since that time neither Israel nor the United States has had official talks with Hamas. Do you think this policy should be altered in some way?

A number of mistakes were made, including pushing the Palestinians into elections for which they were clearly not ready. Anyone who knew anything about the situation on the ground knew that Fatah was not in a strong position by any stretch of the imagination. Technically Fatah won more of the popular votes, but a quirk in the electoral law gave Hamas a majority of the seats in the Palestinian parliament.

In the aftermath, I think it was a sound policy to try and isolate Hamas. Hamas is a terrorist organization dedicated to wiping Israel off the map. Its founding covenant is explicit on this issue. Hamas has been responsible for any number of Israeli deaths through terrorist activities. But that was only half the policy. What Israel and the Bush administration should have done was to move immediately to support Mahmoud Abbas [president of the Palestinian Authority] in a variety of ways, including releasing tax money that the Israelis collect on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, permitting movement throughout the West Bank, and releasing women and children from prisons.

After June 2007, when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, these are things that should have been done immediately to demonstrate to the Palestinian people that Mahmoud Abbas’s way of negotiation was better than Hamas’s way of confrontation.

In recent weeks there has been stepped-up military activity between Israel and the Gaza area, which is controlled by Hamas. Egypt is currently acting as a kind of mediator between Israel and Hamas. Do you think this will produce results?

It’s unclear. The Egyptian position has always been that you’re not going to get any progress as long as you have this political and geographical division of the Palestinians. They have been long-time brokers between Hamas and Fatah. They are well positioned to broker a new unity government between Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah. They may be successful, although I’m doubtful given the situation on the ground right now, but they may see some opening in which they can forge at least some movement toward a new national unity government. This in turn, however, will probably prevent the Israelis from continuing negotiations with Abbas. The Israelis had said, with the support of the United States and the Quartet—which is made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations—that Hamas needs to renounce violence, recognize Israel, and adhere to all previous agreements. To this point there is no indication that Hamas is ready to do that, so if there is some sort of new national unity government, we’re back to a situation in which there is no diplomatic movement because the Israelis don’t want to deal with a Hamas government.

What is the Egyptian role?

The Egyptians are trying to get a cease-fire and they are trying to nudge this forward by getting Abbas and Hamas together. Theoretically there would be no violence, but up until the last six weeks or so there wasn’t a lot of violence and Hamas had basically engaged in a unilateral cease-fire. These Qassam rockets that are landing on the Israeli town of Sderot are being fired by Islamic Jihad or the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which are affiliated actually with Fatah.

But for the Israelis it is a principled position not to deal with Hamas because of its explicit mission to destroy Israel.

Do you think Hamas position is one that could be altered, or is it too difficult for them to drop it?

Hamas is not a monolithic organization. Cerrtainly for some factions within the Hamas movement that refusal to deal with Israel is a real pledge; for others there have been some indications that they are looking for creative ways to begin dialogue with Israelis, but they adhere to this declaration of destroying Israel primarily for their own domestic political survival. This is a kind of founding principle of Hamas. If they were to eschew that principle they would certainly be attacked by those who believe wholeheartedly in the armed struggle.

Now the United States is always dealing with Egypt. So you have Israel and the United States, both talking to the Egyptians who are talking to Hamas about getting a more permanent cease-fire. What does Hamas want in return? They want the opening of the Rafah crossing [between Egyptian and Palestinian-controlled Rafah]?

They want to alter the status quo of the crossings and they want to be recognized as the legitimate Palestinian government. They don’t recognize Mahmoud Abbas’s dissolution of the government that they led as legal. Israel officially rejects contact with Hamas, but there are some prominent political figures in Israel who say that the Israelis have no choice but to engage in dialogue with Hamas to at least explore what might happen. There are currently reports of a back channel via Egypt between the Israelis and Hamas and that is certainly one of the things going on.

But what Hamas wants is a change in the status quo of the border crossings, in which they have control of the border crossings and then a reversal of Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to dissolve the government. Hamas believes the United States and Israel have been dealing with an illegitimate government led by Salam Fayad, whom we recognize as the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority.

The United States is pressing hard to get some movement in the Israeli-Palestinian discussions so that when President Bush goes to Israel in May, there will be something to show, right?

Right potentially. The push is on to demonstrate that he will have something when he visits Israel on its sixtieth anniversary. Once again, this is part of the strategy that they picked up too late in the game, to support Abbas under the theory that if you squeeze Hamas but Abbas is able to deliver on the West Bank, then it will drain support away from Hamas and it will end Hamas’ prestige and influence and people will throw their political support to Mahmoud Abbas.

This both overestimates the ability of the Palestinian Authority to deliver and underestimates how this pressure actually plays out in Palestinian society. It underestimates the concept of steadfastness, which is a very important idea for Palestinians. They tend, when under pressure, to rally around those who are under pressure. Hamas is under pressure in Gaza, and although there have been reports of support draining away from Hamas, there is really no evidence that the Palestinian population in Gaza is in revolt against Hamas rule.

In recent polling by Khalil Shikaki, the Palestinian pollster, there has been a surge of support for Hamas.

It’s primarily because of the pressure that the Israelis are applying to Hamas. You have Palestinians who wouldn’t necessarily support the violence but they are saying, “Well, what choice do we have?” So they support Hamas.

It’s a very interesting dilemma. It reminds me very much of when the United States and Israel would not deal with the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], so really nothing got accomplished until there was a breakthrough after the first Gulf War. There is no chance that any U.S. administration would deal with Hamas by itself, is there?

It strikes me as too perilous for any administration to get out ahead of the Israelis on this issue. Certainly, the administration will follow what the Israelis want and what the Israelis ultimately decide to do, but they are not likely to get out ahead of the Israelis on this issue. There were, in those years when there was a ban on talking with the PLO, a number of efforts on the part of American administrations to feel out the PLO, but those were shut down very quickly. It’s highly unlikely that any administration, no matter what their view is on this conflict, is going to get out and speak to Hamas before the Israelis do.

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