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Siegman: No Peace Possible Between Israel and Palestinians without Hamas

Interviewee: Henry Siegman, Director, United States/Middle East Project
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 7, 2008

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Henry Siegman, an expert on Middle East negotiations, says that no peace will be possible between Israel and Palestinians unless Hamas is brought into the process. “The notion that the Israeli government leaders and our own government have that it is possible to exclude Hamas from peace talks and have a successful result from those talks is a fantasy,” he says. “It’s not going to happen.” Because of President Bush’s refusal to deal with Hamas, he says, it is unlikely that any progress can be made until there is a new president in the White House.

There’s a bit of a lull right now in the fighting between Hamas and Israel, which has led to over one hundred Palestinians dead and a few Israelis in the past couple of weeks. Can you see a diplomatic way of getting a cease-fire that would permit peace talks to continue between Israel and the Palestinian Authority under Fatah leader, President Mahmoud Abbas?

I don’t see talks between Israelis and Palestinians leading anywhere without finding a way of bringing Hamas—who constitute the government of roughly half the Palestinian people—into that process. You can’t make peace with half the population and remain at war with the other half. The notion that the Israeli government leaders and our own government have that it is possible to exclude Hamas from peace talks and have a successful result from those talks is a fantasy. It’s not going to happen.

The question is, is it possible to persuade the United States and Israel’s government to allow Hamas to participate in this process?

The obvious question is would Hamas participate even if it is allowed?

Well, let’s go back in time a bit. After a Palestinian unity government was established in early 2007 as a result of the Mecca agreement, worked out by Saudi mediation, and even before that, when there were talks between Hamas and Fatah about the possibility of forming such a government, Hamas made it clear that even though they themselves would not sit in on those discussions, they had no objections to such discussions proceeding or to Abbas, as the president of the Palestinian Authority and also the president of Fatah, conducting those negotiations. So there was no obstacle to the peace process going forward, particularly since Hamas committed itself to putting an agreement, if one was reached with Israel, to a public referendum. Also Hamas committed itself to abiding by the outcome of that referendum. The notion that you can’t have peace talks while Hamas is in the government is simply not true.

Do you buy into this view that is in a new Vanity Fair article that the United States planned, in cooperation with Fatah, to cause a coup in Gaza and throw out Hamas, and that backfired, leading to the current split between Fatah and Hamas?

One does not need an investigative article to make that point to know it is true. The U.S. government made no secret whatsoever from the beginning that it intended to arm Abbas’s security forces, appoint an American general to be in charge of that program, and provide finances for training, equipment, and the arming of these people. They said publicly the purpose of this project would be for these people to have a showdown with Hamas and to oust them from the government. So, this was never a secret. This was always in the public domain.

I never saw that— that they were so blatant to say they wanted Fatah to oust Hamas.

Yes, they were precisely that blatant. What happened next is that under the direction of Mohammed Dahlan, who was Abbas’s national security adviser, the Fatah militias in Gaza were instructed to attack Hamas forces and to create a sufficient level of anarchy that would allow Abbas’s security forces to come in and to say they have to restore order and take over the government in Gaza. This never was a secret. In any event, the Vanity Fair article pretty much nails down the story.

When was this decision taken?

The decision, according to the article, was taken immediately after the election in January 2006. As the Vanity Fair story tells it, the State Department people and the White House were in a state of total shock when the election results came in.

Hamas was overwhelmingly elected and Fatah was ousted. Incidentally, at this time, Hamas itself was still observing a self-declared cease-fire. They were not sending in missiles or engaging in violence against Israel. I mention this because a lot of people are under the impression that this decision to overthrow Hamas is somehow related to Hamas’ violence. That is simply not true. At the time this decision was taken, there was a cease-fire that Hamas had observed for a year and a half.

So given the current situation, a resumption of talks between Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would result in really nothing, right?

It would result in nothing for essentially two reasons. First, both Israeli officials and American officials are not aware of what it is that Abbas can agree to. They see him as a moderate and he is a moderate in that he opposed the violence of the second intifada [uprising] in 2000, and always argued that this was not the way that Palestinians will achieve their national goal. But it is precisely because he has argued against violence that he is not in a position—particularly when he is at odds with Hamas—to make any kind of significant compromises in the Palestinian position. There is no way that Israelis will be able to get his agreement of what they consider to be their minimal red lines. That is one reason why without Hamas’s participation there is no way that Israel and Abbas could reach agreement on the refugee issue, on the Jerusalem issue, and certainly not on the settlement and border issues, which comprise all of the major permanent-status issues.

The second reason is, as we have just seen in the past week or two, Hamas retains the capacity to blow up the negotiations at any point by simply engaging in violence. And if Hamas sees that there is a process going on that is intended to exclude them, to marginalize them, and ultimately to oust them, they are not going to allow the process to proceed.

The Bush administration will be out of office in ten months. The Israeli government is extremely weak because of a shaky coalition government. Both the U.S. and the Israeli governments won’t deal with Hamas. How do you get over this? Do you wait until there is a new president?

There is no choice but to wait for a new president because on this precise issue of dealing with Hamas, without a resolution, no peace process can succeed. President Bush is not going to change his mind. At least that is what I am told by people who are in touch with him or talk to him about it. He is absolutely convinced that Hamas is part of the “Axis of Evil.” He believes these are people who are essentially in the mold of al-Qaeda, that they support the globalist, jihadist ambition to take over the whole world and establish a caliphate, and so on.

Those convictions of Bush’s are completely divorced from reality. The fact of the matter is that Hamas and al-Qaeda are totally at odds, and have been from the very beginning. Al-Qaeda doesn’t believe in national liberation movements. They believe only in a religious return under a caliphate to the Islamic territories. The idea of a Palestinian nationalism, or any other, they reject completely. Al-Qaeda has no sympathy for Hamas and Hamas has publicly on several occasions repudiated and rejected the statements and prescriptions made by al-Qaeda’s leaders for the Palestinian movement.

What about the Israelis? The Israelis know Hamas pretty well. When Hamas was in opposition to the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], the Israeli government had no great love for the PLO. Do you get any sense that the Israelis would like to deal with Hamas even though Hamas says it will never recognize the existence of the state of Israel?

Well, there was a poll recorded last week in Haaretz that showed a majority of Israelis want their government to reach out to Hamas because they understand that you can’t deal with the problem without Hamas participation. Now there are some well-informed people who tell me that Olmert and others in his government were ready to deal with Hamas, were prepared to respond to Hamas’s offer for a truce and to use the truce to allow a reestablishment of a unity government that would include Hamas and Fatah. But the opposition from Washington, from the White House, is so unyielding that they haven’t been able to act on that.

Have you been following any of the American political campaigns? Have any of the candidates shown any interest in going beyond what the stated American policy is right now?

None of the candidates have said anything on the subject except the very bland, general statements that they are totally committed to the security of Israel. What their real positions are, if they have the responsibility in office to deal with the problem, I simply don’t know.

Some of the advisers to these people, if they remain influential advisers once they get into office, have views that are far less rigid, certainly quite different, than those held by Bush and his people. There will have to be a change in position eventually that not only allows but encourages Israeli leadership to bring Hamas into the process and to deal with the violence coming out of Gaza not militarily but diplomatically. But we’re going to have to wait until the next administration.

Do you think the Egyptians could work out a truce right now? The Egyptians are right now engaged in talking to Hamas about trying to work out a truce, acting as surrogate negotiators with Israel.

The Egyptians have played that role for some time now—with not very impressive results—since Gilad Shalit, the [Israeli] soldier who was kidnapped by some militant groups in Gaza a year and a half ago. They have tried to formulate a package that would enable the parties to agree on a truce and to have an exchange of prisoners. So far, they simply have not been able to deliver. Whether they will be able to do so going forward is difficult to say, particularly since the situation has become even more complicated because there has been added to the mix the issue of the border between Egypt and Gaza . Israelis would like to see it resealed exactly the way it was before. That is something that is very difficult for Egypt to agree to since the Egyptians would then be seen as an accomplice in the Israeli effort to essentially strangle the population of Gaza. It is impossible at this point to cut a deal that doesn’t address that issue as well.

Israelis have said more recently that Hamas has been using missiles made in Iran to hit Ashkelon. Do you think that Iran is really involved now in helping out Hamas?

Hamas and Iran are not natural partners. Hamas are Sunnis. Unlike the Hezbollah, who are Shiites and are natural partners with the Iranians, Hamas is not. Nevertheless, they are fighting, as they see it, for their survival. In those circumstances they will accept assistance from whoever will give it to them. The fact that they are Shiites will not prevent accepting their help. However, there is not evidence, as far as I know, that they have accepted that help on terms that make them subservient to Iran. When Iran tried to organize a meeting to protest the U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace conference last November, Hamas refused to attend, forcing the Iranians to cancel their plans.

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