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Siegman: U.S., Israel Should Recognize Hamas Can Deliver Peace Agreement

Interviewee: Henry Siegman, Former Senior Fellow and Former Director for the U.S./Middle East Project
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
April 27, 2006

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Henry Siegman, CFR's expert on Israeli-Palestinian affairs, says that despite the refusal of Israel's government or the United States to deal with Hamas he believes there is a strong potential for Hamas to transform "in the direction of moderation and responsibility and away from violence and terror."

He says there are indications that such a transformation is taking place. "So what we ought not to be doing is to undermine the moderates and strengthen the extremists," says Siegman, who is a Senior Fellow and Director for the U.S./Middle East Project. Siegman claims that Hamas is trying, behind the scenes, to persuade terrorist groups like Islamic Jihad to stop suicide attacks on Israel, just as Hamas has for the past year. "It is clear that if you really want to stop the violence and get a peace agreement and put the parties on a road toward a peace process, no one except Hamas can deliver," Siegman says.

You've just written a very interesting article in the New York Review of Books about how to deal with Hamas, and your basic conclusion is that we should have a course of action that will encourage Hamas to follow a moderate policy that will not worsen the situation and might lead to some understandings between Israel and the Palestinians. Can you review what you think should be done about Hamas?

There are certain things I think we ought not do about Hamas, and I'm clearer about that than about what we should be doing with Hamas. As I indicated in the article, I believe that Hamas is undergoing a transformation, or at least there is a very strong potential for a transformation in the direction of moderation and responsibility and away from violence and terror. And in fact a great deal has happened to indicate that that transformation is actually taking place. So what we ought not to be doing is to undermine the moderates and strengthen the extremists.

Hamas declared well over a year ago that it will no longer sponsor terror bombings, and it has in fact stopped doing that. And it seems like this great change, which has been so important to the lives of Israelis, has occurred with hardly an Israeli acknowledgment, despite the radical change this has created in Israel. In part, this is because there are still some groups, like Islamic Jihad, and also some groups connected with Fatah, that are still engaged in violence.

Now, let me just stop you there, because recently we had another suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, and Islamic Jihad, as you say, took responsibility. But Hamas said in its government statement that it will not try to stop this, that it's okay to continue these kinds of things. Wasn't that kind of stupid from their point of view?

Well, first, Hamas didn't really say that. I know that this statement was attributed to Hamas. Hamas didn't really say that. The New York Times had a very strong editorial attacking Hamas for applauding and encouraging suicide bombings. Hamas tried to "explain" why this happens—they said these are people who are being pushed into it because of their desperation and that their resistance is legitimate. Now, what do you expect Hamas's leaders to say when it is an organization that insisted on the patriotism, religious virtue, and legitimacy of this kind of resistance all these years? They themselves stopped the violence, but they cannot hope to get Islamic Jihad to do the same by condemning them, by saying that Islamic Jihad is committing murder, that it is evil. They would have no credibility whatsoever. The New York Times and some others who blasted them knew that Hamas has been meeting quietly with Islamic Jihad, trying to persuade them not that they are evil, but that the time has come for new and different national priorities.

Is that true? I didn't know that.

Yes. They're trying to persuade Islamic Jihad and the other rejectionist groups to stop the suicide bombings, as they themselves have for over a year. This brings us to a fundamental question: It is clear that if you really want to stop the violence and get a peace agreement and put the parties on a road toward a peace process, no one except Hamas can deliver. Fatah certainly cannot, because it is dysfunctional and it is corrupt. And if Fatah came back to power, it clearly would not change the catastrophic direction in which Palestinians and Israelis are heading. Fatah is incapable of doing anything to bring about a bilateral peace process—if only because Hamas would be in the opposition and would not allow it. But even without Hamas, Fatah is incapable of bringing Israel to the table, as we have seen these past several years. And if a peace process did get underway, the Palestinian public would not trust Fatah enough to support the compromises that will be necessary.

Four years ago, Ephraim Halevy, a highly respected, responsible, and knowledgeable person who headed the Mossad [Israel's intelligence service] for many years, said something very important. This very tough, hard-nosed realist, who is not a starry-eyed "leftist," wrote in an article that Israel must fight Hamas terror, but it must also encourage Hamas to become part of the political process. This, he said, is essential because of the large support Hamas enjoys with the Palestinian public. Given its popularity, Israel cannot hope to conclude a peace agreement that is not supported by Hamas.

Now that Hamas has joined the political process, and has finally stopped the violence, instead of encouraging Hamas moderation so that Israel might have a credible interlocutor—a "real partner for peace"—Israel is boycotting Hamas and trying to bring it down. This despite the fact that no one in Israel doubts that Hamas is the one political force in Palestine that can end the violence and reach a peace accord if it decides to do so, and that President Mahmoud Abbas cannot.

Is this like the situation in 1972 that only a right-wing president like Richard Nixon could open the door to China?

That's exactly what it is. Hamas has the credibility. In the Palestinian view, they're martyrs and heroes. So if Hamas says the time has come to make certain compromises and to move to end the conflict, it certainly can sell it to the Palestinian public. Hamas would have no problem doing that.

Ehud Olmert, the new elected prime minister of Israel, is on the verge of completing his cabinet. How should Israel react once it has its government in place? Olmert will be coming to Washington toward the end of May, on May 23, I think. What should the United States do? The United States has virtually done nothing.

It has done nothing. At the risk of playing a tired record for you, Olmert, as I read him, has no intention of moving towards a negotiated agreement. Quite the contrary, his main policy objective is to avoid being sucked into a negotiation with the Palestinians because of the compromises he would have to make in a bilateral process. Olmert, like [former Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon, has very clear ideas of where he wants to draw Israel's border, and like Sharon, he does not want Palestinians to have a say in the matter.

Olmert doesn't want any part of the state of Palestine to be located in Jerusalem, east Jerusalem, or even the Arab parts of east Jerusalem. He wants Jerusalem to remain undivided, and he has promoted a construction program that is intended to close all of east Jerusalem to a Palestinian state. He intends to turn the separation wall that Israel is building in the West Bank into a permanent border—not that any serious person had any doubts that this was always what the wall was intended for.

So Olmert has no interest in encouraging moderation in Hamas. As far as he is concerned, Hamas' election was a gift from the good Lord, because he now can maintain that Israel really has no partner for peace without getting an argument from Washington. Of course, when Israel had a partner [Abbas], Sharon wouldn't talk to him. He wouldn't give him the time of day. So it is clear that the Israelis are not going to do anything that will require them to enter into a dialogue with Hamas.

And the United States?

The United States is repeating what is a very dangerous falsehood, and that is to equate Hamas and al-Qaeda, on the grounds that a terrorist is a terrorist. Hamas has stated repeatedly, and just within these past several days, that al-Qaeda not only doesn't speak for them, but they have no common ideology. Hamas does not buy bin Laden's religious war with the West. Hamas leaders have stated repeatedly that they have no conflict with the United States or with Western civilization. It is a war that is not on their agenda. Their agenda is the end of Israel's occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Is there any likelihood President Bush will do anything?

No, I think there's no likelihood that Bush will do anything as long as Hamas does not fully capitulate. And if Hamas did capitulate, it is hard to imagine that Bush is prepared to do much in order to change Israel's policy towards Hamas. But, while Hamas won't capitulate, it has said it is prepared to accept the state of Israel, and even negotiate with it.

Through a third party?

Through a third party, or even directly. For Hamas the issue is what kind of Israel is it being asked to recognize. If it is an Israel that accepts the legitimacy of a Palestinian state, and that the starting point for a peace process is the 1967 border, as required by previous agreements, that Hamas is being asked to accept, it is prepared to deal with Israel.

Hamas will not accept or deal with Israel if it ignores the ground rules of the Road Map [internationally backed peace plan for the Middle East] and insists on expanding the state of Israel beyond its pre-1967 borders, so as to enlarge its territory from 78 percent of [the historic homeland of] Palestine and to shrink the remaining 22 percent of Palestine. Not only Hamas, but no political leadership now or in the future, will agree to this.

In your article you said that if there's a protracted ceasefire, over time that might lead to some kind of agreement.

Yes, yes. There may be informal accommodations made to one another's needs. But that can happen only if Israel wants such accommodations, and stops its campaign to bring down Hamas. If Israel's policy remains the destruction of Hamas, either its total capitulation or its disruption, none of this can happen.

You know, all of this hangs on one critical, fundamental question: Does Israel really want a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians, not just a surrender to its dictates? Until Israeli policy recognizes that there cannot be peace for Israel that is not the product of a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians, it is silly to talk about what Israelis should be doing with Hamas. Once they accept this reality, Hamas can be a far more effective partner for peace than Fatah has been.

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