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Should Hamas Be Included in the Mideast Peace Process?

Discussants: Mohamad Bazzi, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, and Robert Satloff, Executive Director, Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Updated: May 2, 2008


A 2006 victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections thrust Hamas into a postition of political leadership in the Palestinian Authority. In 2007, the group forcibly ousted its political rivals, Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah Party, from Gaza. Since then, Hamas has allowed, and possibly instigated, almost daily rocket attacks on Israel from its Gaza stronghold.

President Bush’s attempt to revive the Mideast Peace Process through the November 2007 Annapolis Conference and subsequent diplomacy has to date excluded Hamas, which the United States and European Union continue to label a terrorist group. Hamas’ refusal to disavow violence or recognize Israel’s right to exist has prompted the United States and its diplomatic partners from isolating the group, despite its significant role in the ongoing conflict.

Mohamad Bazzi, CFR’s Murrow press fellow, and Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, debate whether Hamas should have a role in the current peace process.

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Robert SatloffMost Recent

May 2, 2008

Robert Satloff

In his closing paragraph, Mr. Bazzi reveals a rationale for engaging Hamas that unfortunately animates the arguments of most advocates of this policy—namely, there is no other simple solution for the problem of Gaza so let’s try this one. There is something deeply ingrained in the American gene to believe that all problems have solutions. It is a hopeful and positive attribute. But it doesn't always apply. Some problems have no simple and neat solutions. From the day the people of Gaza were permitted to cast ballots for an organization fundamentally opposed to the agreements that permitted the election in the first place (the Oslo Accords) and fundamentally opposed to the existence of the party that gave assent to the elections (Israel), this was going to be a tough nut to crack.

Les Gelb is right—foreign policy is often a messy business in which the good guys sometimes have to do business with bad guys to prevent even worse guys from coming to power or doing terrible things. But it is quite a stretch to say that the United States should suspend thirty-five years of sound, bipartisan policy (i.e., conditioning its diplomacy with Palestinian groups on conditions regarding recognizing Israel, renouncing terrorism and violence, and accepting diplomacy as the sole path to resolving conflict) because dealing with Hamas today is better than dealing with al-Qaeda in Gaza tomorrow. To the extent there is an al-Qaeda inspired movement among Palestinians, it makes little sense to strengthen another organization with which we have no shared interests as a way to stymie that even worse group.

I also reject the assertion that investing in the political, economic, and security capacity of the Palestinian Authority is somehow akin to placing one’s bets on Arafat, which was one of the core problems of the early Oslo years. To the contrary, our failure to invest in the institutions of government in the 1990s was precisely one of the reasons that fed Arafat’s iron grip and aborted the development of a functioning administration in the territories, accountable to the people. It was the right policy then but we failed to implement it. It remains the right policy today—and I fear that we will fail to implement it even when we have a second chance.

What I propose is hard work, with no headlines and a real possibility of failure. But it is the way to build a secure peace. Engaging with a group opposed to the very idea of peace is an odd alternative to that goal.

MohamadBazziMohamad Bazzi

May 1, 2008

I agree with Dr. Satloff that the Palestinian people might eventually oust Hamas from power. But that won't happen as long as the movement remains isolated and Gaza remains under siege. Hamas will not be judged by the Palestinian people as a political failure if it never has the chance to actually govern. Hamas will always be able to use its isolation and the siege as excuses and as ways to deflect attention from its own shortcomings.

In the 1980s, American government officials and scholars used to say that the Palestinian people would grow tired of conflict and find an alternative to Yasir Arafat and his PLO. Unfortunately, the alternative that emerged was even more militant and intransigent: it was Hamas.

Today, the danger is that as long as Hamas remains isolated, an even more lethal force will emerge in the Palestinian territories: Islamic radicals motivated or inspired by al-Qaeda. By failing to deal with Hamas, the West is making the same mistake it made in the 1980s.

There is a contradiction in the argument that the United States should invest all of its energies in building the political, economic, and security institutions of the Palestinian Authority (which is dominated by the Fatah faction of the PLO built by Arafat). Dr. Satloff believes it was a mistake for the United States and Israel to invest in Arafat in the first place. Yet he also argues that the West should continue to put all of its eggs in that same basket: the corrupt, inefficient, and largely discredited Fatah leadership.

Dr. Satloff does not offer a prescription for ending the current stalemate. Hamas refuses to stop its rocket barrages on civilians in southern Israel or attacks on Israeli soldiers stationed at the border. In turn, Israel refuses to end its air raids and attacks on Gaza, or to lift the siege. How can the West help negotiate a ceasefire in Gaza without engaging, directly or indirectly, with Hamas? As Leslie Gelb, CFR’s president emeritus, recently advised U.S. leaders in a Washington Post essay, “If you won’t deal with bad guys, don’t go into the foreign policy business.”

Robert SatloffRobert Satloff

April 30, 2008

Sadly, Mr. Bazzi offers a repeat of two failed experiments from previous American efforts in the Middle East —the quixotic search for “moderates” and the anointing of individuals as partners, rather than building true institutions of partnership. The first characterized misguided policy toward Iran for years; the second was the original sin in our investment in Arafat. Both are offered in his prescription regarding Hamas.

Hamas leaders do divide between moderates and radicals but the scope of the difference is tactical, not strategic. The former support a tahdiya (a brief lull in the war against Israel) while the latter support a hudna (a lengthier pause in the war against Israel). Neither view approximates peace with Israel. The United States has no interest in recognizing this as a legitimate debate by trying to coax the hudna supporters out of the shadow, as Mr. Bazzi suggests.

Why are we contemplating giving up our strategy toward Hamas so quickly? With time and patience, Hamas may change its view; alternatively, the Palestinian people may tire of perpetual conflict and bounce them from power; or perhaps some external actor, such as Egypt, will be so fed up with the Iranian-backed enemy-statelet on its border that it will act on its own. These are just three of several possible options. In the meantime, let’s invest our energies where it can make a difference—building the political, economic, and security capacities and governing institutions of Palestinians who, for all their difficulties, at least maintain an image of peace as their objective. Even entertaining the idea of bringing Hamas into diplomacy before Hamas had paid the entry fee will hurt those other Palestinians most of all. 

Mohamad BazziMohamad Bazzi

April 29, 2008

Hamas is not a monolithic organization. Dr. Satloff may not be hearing about the internal debates within Hamas, but that does not mean that these discussions are not taking place. To survive underground, groups like Hamas cannot encourage public dissent; they must remain hierarchical and highly disciplined.

The best way to take advantage of these internal debates is to engage with Hamas, and encourage some elements within it to become more pragmatic. As long as Hamas remains isolated, the hard-liners led by Khaled Meshaal—head of the Hamas political bureau, who lives in Syria—will continue to dominate. Moreover, it's important to note that ever since Israel assassinated Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin in 2004, the group has no longer had one supreme leader. Hamas is not like the Palestine Liberation Organization, dominated by Yasir Arafat for decades. Today, Meshaal is the one who comes closest to a controlling figure, but he does not have the same stature as Sheik Yassin.

Different factions within a group can have different interests: the exiled Hamas leaders are keen to continue the conflict as long as possible, while some of the internal leaders are open to dialogue. It's possible to divide these factions from one another. But the United States and Europe will never know unless they try.

Before the Hamas takeover of Gaza, the West had a chance to engage with several internal Hamas leaders who were more open to dialogue than the exiled leadership. Those leaders include Ismail Haniyeh, the deposed Palestinian prime minister. Since the mid-1990s, Haniyeh served as the Gaza liaison between Hamas and the PLO's Fatah faction (now led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas). Among the other Hamas leaders who were receptive to dialogue was Nasser Shaer, the former deputy prime minister and a professor of Islamic law from the West Bank.

After Hamas took control of Gaza by force, Abbas deposed the Hamas-led government. Israel and the United States resumed negotiations with Abbas, while Israel imposed a tight economic blockade on Gaza and its 1.4 million residents. Israel claims the siege is intended to turn Palestinians against Hamas. That strategy has failed, and Palestinians instead directed their anger at Israel and Abbas.

Since Dr. Satloff brought up the debate over negotiating with the PLO two decades ago, I would argue that there are important lessons to be learned from that episode. In fact, Arafat did not fully meet the three conditions that the United States had set before it would recognize the PLO. While Arafat did finally renounce terrorism and recognize Israel’s right to exist in his December 1988 speech before the United Nations in Geneva, he did not amend the PLO charter to reflect this change.

The United States and Israel accepted that Arafat was willing to negotiate, and they deferred the question of the PLO charter. The covenant was finally amended in 1996, and it's important to remember that younger Fatah activists who had grown up in the Palestinian territories—and were tired of the older, militant PLO exiles—helped lead the movement to amend the charter. There's a similar opportunity today to woo internal Hamas leaders who are disillusioned with the hard-line exiles.

Robert SatloffRobert Satloff

April 28, 2008

The debate over Hamas today is reminiscent of the debate over the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] two decades ago. “The PLO is an important political and social force,” we were told (by Arabs, Europeans and the PLO's other advocates) “and no settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible without its involvement. As a result, the Middle East peace process must include talks with the PLO.”

Thankfully, successive administrations–Republican and Democratic–saw through this argument and recognized that it would be counterproductive to bring the PLO into “the peace process” without first getting their agreement-in-principle to the idea of peace with Israel. Hence, the definition of three conditions that Yasser Arafat had to meet before the United States would even countenance diplomatic engagement, let alone bring the PLO into peace diplomacy. After years of squirming, with his Euro and Arab acolytes begging us to water down our terms, Arafat finally uttered the necessary words in November 1988. (In retrospect, it was an error to judge him as having met those conditions at that time; the United States should have kept its distance from the PLO until it met Israel’s own conditions, as laid out in the Arafat-Rabin correspondence that accompanied the Oslo Accords in September 1993. That, however, is an argument for another day.)

Why define conditions about such items as recognizing Israel’s right to exist? It’s actually quite fundamental. The “peace process” can whittle down differences over such issues as kilometers ceded, weapons delivered, peacekeepers deployed, refugees repatriated, and dollars expended but no amount of diplomacy can resolve whether a party to a negotiation refuses even to accept the legitimate right of the other party to a negotiation even to exist? In the Hamas case, given that Hamas remains committed to the destruction of Israel, what is left to negotiate—the speed of Israel’s destruction? The manner of destruction? What is to be done with the leftover property of dead Jews?

Ah, but not all Hamas officials are alike, we are told, just as Mr. Bazzi argues in his essay. This, too, is a movie we have seen before, with Iran. “Reach out to moderates” has been the consistent cry of accommodationists since the Iranian revolution, despite the fact that moderates either turned out to be powerless or not so moderate at all. (In the Iranian case, for example, most observers fail to take account of the fact that the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran convincingly argues that the Iranians were going full-steam ahead on all aspects of their nuclear weapons program precisely when “reformist” President Mohammed Khatami was in office.)

In the Palestinian arena, this too is a replay of the debate that occurred vis-à-vis the PLO two decades ago. At least that debate had some merit to it—there were some courageous PLO officials and intellectuals who had spoken out in favor of a two-state solution, i.e., a final re-partition of Palestine, as the permanent solution leading to the end of the conflict with Israel. Sometimes they were assassinated; sometimes muted in other ways; and sometimes they kept quiet to fight another day. At least there was a debate.

Has a single Hamas official broken ranks from the Hamas orthodoxy to suggest that a re-partition of Palestine and the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel would be the final and irrevocable end to Palestinian territorial claims? This is different than the slippery language some Hamas leaders used, in conversations with Jimmy Carter for example, suggesting they would “accept” the 1967 borders. Accept as what? A “transitional” stage, as Hamas’ spokesman had the honesty to say after Mr. Carter finished his own press conference.

Until Hamas meets the twenty-first century equivalent of what the PLO had to meet two decades ago to merit U.S. diplomatic engagement, the only wise strategy for Washington is to stay the course.

Mohamad BazziMohamad Bazzi

April 28, 2008

Hamas is an important political and social force, and no settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible without its involvement. As a result, the Middle East peace process must include talks with Hamas.

It will not be easy: There will be false-starts and conflicting messages from Hamas leaders. Hamas is not an entirely cohesive organization: there is a political wing living in exile, a political wing inside the Palestinian territories, and a military wing. Each wing represents a different trend within Hamas, and much of the power rests with the exiled leaders. Unfortunately, the exiles tend to be the most hard-line.

Hamas needs to make more political accommodations. In the past, it could afford to always take hard-line positions. But once it achieved political power by winning the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, Hamas needed to make compromises and play politics. It has not yet reached that stage.

One reason is that Hamas’ foreign protectors—Syria and Iran—encourage its exiled leaders to maintain their hard-line stance. Hamas sometimes takes actions that are more geared to the interests of Syria and Iran, and less to the needs of its Palestinian constituency. The West also bears some blame for this trend. By keeping Hamas isolated, the United States and Europe are making a serious mistake: they are helping its external leaders dominate the group, at the expense of leaders inside the Palestinian territories.

The internal leadership, cut off from the outside world, is dependent on the exiles to raise money and to help the group survive. Those external leaders, living in comfort away from Gaza and the West Bank, can afford to be uncompromising. They don’t answer to any Palestinian constituency and they don’t live among average Palestinians.

Usually, when a rift develops in a movement between leaders on the ground and those in exile, the balance of power shifts to those on the ground or the external leaders are forced to make compromises. But Hamas has not undergone that transformation, partly because its isolation has made it highly dependent on its external leaders.

To his credit, former President Jimmy Carter realized the importance of dialogue with Hamas and its benefactors. “The present strategy of excluding Hamas and excluding Syria is just not working,” he said last week after meeting with Hamas leaders in Damascus. Unfortunately, the Hamas exiles sent Carter home essentially empty-handed, and they squandered a crucial opening. But it is well worth trying again.

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