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Siegman: U.S., Israel and EU Must Deal With Hamas If it Drops Harsh Policies Toward Israel

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

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Henry Siegman, CFR’s leading expert on Israeli-Palestinian affairs, says there are signs Hamas may be seeking ways to ease its policies calling for Israel’s destruction. Siegman says it is important that the United States, the European Union and Israel be ready to deal with Hamas, which is about to take over the Palestinian government, if such policy changes do, in fact, occur.

“If they are told no matter what you do we’re not going to deal with you and we’re out to destroy you, the situation is hopeless,” says Siegman, who was in Israel for the Palestinian parliamentary elections. The results, he says, shocked everyone there and in the Palestinian Authority. He likens the situation now with that of dealing with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which originally called for Israel’s destruction but eventually entered into agreements with Israel in 1993.

Siegman was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on January 27, 2006.

The elections for the Palestinian parliament took place while you were in Israel earlier this week. The results obviously surprised most people in Israel and in the Palestinian territories. I assume they surprised you too.

Yes, indeed. I was in Ramallah two days before the election and met with President Mahmoud Abbas [Abu Mazen] and with Khalil Shikaki, the most respected pollster in the West Bank. And while Shikaki was very worried—he was afraid that it would be much closer than his polls indicated—no one thought that Hamas would wind up with an overwhelming victory, taking total control, seventy-six seats out of 132, leaving everyone far behind. That was totally unexpected and came as a shock. It came as a shock to Fatah, which was certainly destroyed in the process. It came as shock to the small Christian minority in Palestine and of course also to Israel, to Israel’s acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, with whom I met before the election.

It must have come as a shock to Hamas also.

Yes. While they were very confident, they did not expect to win by those incredible margins.

Does Hamas have a shadow government ready to take over?  

They do not have a shadow government, and until very recently had not decided whether to join the government. But they will do so. By law, the president must turn to them as the largest party in the Legislative council to form the government.

Who is likely to be the prime minister of this government?

That’s a good question. It’s not clear at all. The conventional wisdom—and in the last few days so much conventional wisdom has gone down the drain that I hesitate to mention it—is that Hamas will not designate one of their leaders; they will propose someone who is not directly affiliated with Hamas, but a respected and more recognized person who would be sympathetic to them, to serve as the prime minister in this new government.

Why would they do that?

Well, they are aware that the international community is going to find it very difficult to deal with them until they undergo certain changes and soften their positions on three issues: One, the opposition to Israel’s existence; two, their continued resort to terror and violence. A major theme of their election campaign was that their violent "resistance" to the occupation was responsible for Israel’s departure from Gaza. And the third point is the retention of a separate independent militia. So they’re going to have to change those positions if the international community is to deal with them and if they’re to continue to receive large financial assistance without which the Palestinian government and society will collapse completely.

To that end they understand that they would be better off with a prime minister who can relate to the international community and can deal with Israel because they are also going to be dependent on Israeli cooperation as well. If they choose a man of their own from within Hamas, the international community will find it very difficult to do business with him, at least initially, until it becomes clear that Hamas has abandoned their hard-line positions.

Are there any names being bandied around?

I have not heard any. In the week that I spent there, the principle that they are likely to put forward a prime ministerial candidate who is not a member of Hamas, was mentioned by all parties. But I did not hear specific names.

Let’s talk a little bit about the history here. Is Hamas now in a situation similar to what the [Palestinian Liberation Organization] PLO was like in the late 1980s and early 1990s? The PLO at that time also refused to recognize the state of Israel and its charter was dedicated to its destruction.

Those who argue that the elections were not necessarily an unmitigated disaster that will lead to a renewal of violence and to a total break in the peace process, make precisely that point. They point to the history of Israel’s relations with the PLO. The PLO had a charter that originally was no different than Hamas’ charter. That is to say it called for violent resistance to the occupation and declared it would never recognize the state of Israel and that its goal was to recover the territories, in other words to undo the state of Israel and destroy it. And yet, we know that all of that changed and it changed as a consequence of Israel reaching out to the PLO and to Yasir Arafat and engaging them in contact, which led to the Oslo agreements of 1993. The PLO Charter was not formally changed until a meeting in Gaza, which President Bill Clinton attended, when the PLO central committee removed the offensive language.

I see. I thought Arafat had made some speech saying the right words and that led the U.S. to agree to deal with the PLO in the 1980s.

That is true. But as far as Israel was concerned it was the official charter of the PLO that was so offensive and that was not changed until a couple of years into the Oslo Accord. The point being that only if you engage your adversary, as was the case with the PLO, can you hope to modify his position. It is necessary to hold out a political horizon that could begin to satisfy the more reasonable expectations of the organization and of the Palestinian Authority, which they will be controlling.

Do you think this is likely to happen?

I think it is possible. I think the more we indicate—and when I say “we”  I mean the United States and the international community—that if Hamas changes those unacceptable aspects of their political program the United States, the international community and Israel would relate to them, the more we would encourage them to do so. If they are told no matter what you do we’re not going to deal with you and we’re out to destroy you, the situation is hopeless.

President Bush seemed to say the right words at his press conference on Thursday, saying they would have to change their policies for us to deal with them.

Yes. Both he and the leaders of the European countries and the “road map” Quartet generally have used that language, saying, “With your present positions, we can’t deal with you. But if you were to change those positions, if you accept Israel, if you renounce terror then you are a legitimate party because you have been elected in a genuinely democratic election.” They have taken that position and that puts some pressure on Israel to do likewise.

Still, in response to your question whether they are likely to change, Hamas began changing when they made the decision to participate in the election. Ismail Haniyeh, the most senior person elected to the PLC, said that there are now new rules of the game that Hamas is following; that this is not simply a tactical change, but a strategic reorientation from their earlier exclusive reliance on violence to politics and nation building. This imposes on them not only a change in direction but a complete reorientation to the other groups within the Palestinian community, because they will now be responsible for the welfare and well-being of the Palestinian people.

The Palestinian Authority has its own security forces, which are run by Fatah. How is Hamas going to take over that security force?

That’s a very interesting question. The security forces are not run by Fatah but by the Palestinian Authority. If Hamas runs the government, there are presumably several options they can pursue. One is to say they are keeping the militias, or that the militias will now be integrated into the government’s security forces.

How will Fatah and Hamas get along?

Hamas officials insist they intend to pursue an inclusive approach that will bring not only Fatah but all other smaller parties into the government. But there is a debate within Fatah whether it should do so, and  share the blame for Hamas’ failures. Some Hamas officials have said that while Hamas will not engage Israel on a peace process, they will allow Abu Mazen to do so.

Of course, Israel is not interested in negotiating with the PLO, is it?

Well, technically Israel would have to reach whatever agreement it does with the PLO not with the Palestinian Authority. It’s a narrow technical point. But I think the more important question is whether Israel is interested in proceeding with a peace process that tackles permanent status issues. The fact of the matter is that nothing much will change on the subject of peace negotiations because Ariel Sharon was totally disinterested in pursuing the peace process when Hamas was not in power. He ignored Abu Mazen, sought to dsicredit him, and the Road Map, for all practical purposes, became a dead letter.

But hasn’t Olmert changed that position somewhat?

Well, he changed expectations but he didn’t change reality. Nothing’s happened to reengage Israel and the Palestinians. It hasn’t taken place. And while Olmert's rhetoric has been far less harsh than Sharon’s, he also has spelled out certain conditions for the resumption of the peace process—conditions that are not much different than the ones Sharon outlined: which is to say, the terror network and infrastructure had to be totally dismantled, that all kind of changes had to take place in terms of democracy, transparency, accountability and so on. Sharon always said these conditions would probably take another twenty years before they are met, and consequently another Palestinian generation would have to grow up before permanent status issues are discussed by Israel. There’s nothing in what Olmert has said that seems to change that.

There’s campaigning going on in Israel for the March election in the Knesset which will produce a prime minister. You don’t expect anything dramatic to happen before then?

Nothing will happen before the elections are over.

It looks like the centrist party, Kadima, is in the lead?

Olmert’s party enjoys a very significant lead in the polls. In the most recent polls, they are favored to win forty-four out of the 120 seats in the Knesset. And Labor has about twenty-one seats. So they are clearly in the lead and they are expected to form the next government. But because it is an election period and because [Likud leader Binyamin] Netanyahu and the right will attack Olmert and his party Kadima, nothing will happen before the elections and the Palestinians understand that. And nothing will be clarified about how Israel will actually relate to a government run by Hamas until after the Israeli elections. I think no one on the Palestinian side minds that because on their side it will take at least that much time for things to sort out and for everyone to get some clearer sense of how Hamas plans to govern.

I guess in Israel and the rest of the world, people will be super sensitive of any acts of terrorism againstIsrael.

Absolutely. Hamas has said they are prepared to renew the truce that ended last year for an indefinite period of time, provided Israel does so as well and does not target them. That’s an important commitment on Hamas’ part because there’s an important difference between a commitment made when they were outside the government and a commitment made when they are in the government. The latter will oblige them to deal with those groups that are violating the truce and I think they would be much more effective in disciplining those groups than Fatah was.

The U.S. and the other “road map” countries are supposed to meet next week to discuss a common policy. It seems pretty clear what they’re going do, but what do you think?

I think they will confirm the positions expressed individually by European Union countries and by President Bush. They will say they respect the outcome of the elections but will not deal with Hamas unless and until it disavows terror and recognizes Israel. In the meantime they will try to find indirect ways of getting a certain level of aid to the Palestinians to prevent a humanitarian disaster.

I noticed on the wire services that Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League, says that Hamas must accept Israel too, in keeping with an Arab League agreement.

This is based on a Saudi initiative put forth by King – then Crown Prince – Abdullah, which promised to establish formal relations between Israel and the Arab world once Israel and the Palestinians reach an agreement. The Saudi proposal also stated that if the Palestinians and Israelis agreed to a territorial swap in exchange for Israel’s annexation of the large settlement blocs, this would be acceptable.

The former Mossad [intelligence] leader, who was also Sharon’s national security adviser,Ephraim Halevy, said several years ago in an interview that was published in Haaretz that Israel must fight relentlessly to destroy the Hamas terror wing. But at the same time Israel must encourage the evolution of Hamas into a political organization that is part of the Palestinian polity because, he said, there is no hope of a peace agreement with the Palestinians if Hamas is on the outside and opposes the agreement. There are people in Israel, and not just wild-eyed leftists and liberals, but hardline security people who have long recognized that the point will come Israel must not only accept, but encourage the kind of change in Hamas that may now be taking place.

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