Brown: A Time for ‘Quiet Diplomacy’ Between Israel and Hamas?

Nathan J. Brown, a leading expert on Palestinian politics, says Israel and Hamas need a period of “quiet diplomacy”, away from the spotlight, to try to sort out a way of co-existing.

May 19, 2006

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Nathan J. Brown, a leading expert on Palestinian politics and Islamic law, says that since neither Israel nor Hamas has much experience dealing with the other, what is needed is a period of "quiet diplomacy." "The sorts of action that should be going on right now are probably not a big international meeting with all the spotlight that entails, but a lot of very quiet diplomacy," says Brown, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"The fact is that Israelis don’t know much about Hamas," Brown says. "Hamas has no experience dealing with Israelis either. And so what probably should be encouraged right now are unofficial contacts, or contacts that are strictly off-the-record."

Brown also says that by trying to impose an international boycott on Hamas, the United States is, in a sense, undercutting its own democratic aspirations for the Middle East. He says he is certain the chances for democracy succeeding are higher in Palestine than in Iraq.

Ehud Olmert will be making his first trip to Washington next week as the new Israeli prime minister to meet with President Bush and other officials. What do you think the main topics on the agenda will be?

Well, I guess there’d be three. One would be what Olmert is calling his convergence plan, essentially a move toward the direction of unilaterally re-drawing Israel’s border. But there have been an awful lot of attempts to dampen that down and say, "Well, he’s just going to be kind of presenting the general outline for the plan." The second issue will be Iran, where obviously both leaders are deeply concerned about its nuclear program. And third will be how to handle the Palestinian elections and how to react to the political and humanitarian situation developing in the West Bank and Gaza.

You’ve most recently written an interesting essay on the whole question of how the United States and, to a certain extent, Israel should deal with Hamas. The United States right now, of course, really has no dealings with the Palestinian Authority government because it is led by Hamas, is that right?

Yes. After the elections the so-called quartet—the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations—came out with a list of three conditions for the Palestinian government to meet and they basically have not met those conditions. So the United States has absolutely no dealings with Hamas. But it goes beyond simply not having diplomatic contact to essentially cutting off both Hamas financially and the Palestinian Authority and most of the Palestinian people as well.

So, right now the Palestinian Authority gets very little money, is that right?

Yes, I mean essentially there are three main sources of revenue for its regular operating budget. It collects some of its own taxes, but that’s fairly modest—we’re talking maybe 20 percent or so of its revenues, maybe slightly more. [The Palestinians] get a large degree of foreign assistance. And then the third source is that anytime you try to import any goods into the West Bank or Gaza, it has to enter through an Israeli port. And the Israelis impose the tax and then, under an agreement negotiated back in 1995, transfer those tax payments over to the Palestinian Authority after deducting an administrative fee. So you’ve got this odd situation where the Israelis have essentially been collecting Palestinian taxes, and that’s been cut off as well.

Prime Minister Olmert in his interview with the New York Times yesterday expressed frustration with the Palestinian Authority and said that Israel was doing them a favor by collecting the taxes. He says they could collect it themselves, but they’re so corrupt, it would all be wasted. What is that all about?

Well, I would say that’s a little bit of political spin. Essentially what you have is an interlocking economy there, and Palestinians do not control points of entry. It is possible now that Gaza has been sealed off from Israel, you could import to Gaza if there were free transport back and forth. You could probably set up a Gazan economy that was somewhat distinct from the Israeli economy and collect taxes separately. For the West Bank, at least as it’s currently configured, that simply isn’t possible, and the Israelis don’t want [this scenario] anymore than the Palestinians do because, if the Palestinians were the ones who were imposing the taxes when it entered the West Bank, they could set the tax rates lower and people could easily smuggle goods into Israel. So Israel and the Palestinians want it treated as a single economic unit. Neither side is really happy with that; they both would probably prefer to go their separate ways, but at least this border [where taxes are collected by Israelis], or lack thereof, is the only alternative.

Now, you have some suggestions on what the United States should be doing with Hamas, short of trying to impose a sort of international boycott.

Yes, well a political boycott is one thing, but the financial boycott is almost a knee-jerk reaction: "We have terrorists in power; we can’t be supplying them with funds." And there’s certainly very powerful logic to that argument. But if you play that out and see what’s going to happen, it’s clear that this Hamas-led government is quite unusual. It is so extremely dependent on revenue that it doesn’t directly control—the revenue it gets from Israel, the revenue it gets from the Europeans, and other sources.

So if you cut them off, you’re not simply putting a tight squeeze on them, you’re really shutting the government down. And that’s a very, very drastic step. We talked about it to some extent internationally, about the humanitarian implications of shutting down all social services—health and education and so forth—and that’s severe, but I would say there are political implications as well, because you’re essentially then taking the structure that was set up under the Oslo Accords and completely destroying it. And I’m not quite sure how anybody comes out ahead with the West Bank and Gaza descending into complete political chaos.

Are the Europeans who initially signed onto this economic boycott now having second thoughts?

Absolutely. In a sense, the problem is that the economic boycott has succeeded all too well. As I said, it goes beyond squeezing the current government to threatening its very existence. The Europeans are treating it a little bit as a humanitarian issue, and there’s always been the position: "We do not want to let the Palestinians starve." The Israelis have said that, the Americans have said that, the Europeans have said that. But what the Europeans are doing right now is exploring ways that would allow them to go beyond sort of sending in food or medical supplies, to actually supporting parts of the Palestinian bureaucracy that provide vital social services, especially education and health, because if nobody pays the salaries of these workers, then you will have a situation where basically the social infrastructure collapses.

Is the U.S. position driven, you think, by domestic politics? Are we prohibited by law from giving any money to a terrorist organization?

There are several things going on. Certainly Hamas is not a popular cause domestically, so domestic politics does become relevant. Second, there is a very strong American rhetorical commitment on combating terrorism, which would make it very difficult to go on with business as usual. And the third thing that’s going on, I think, is, as you say, the legal situation. There are fairly strong anti-terrorism laws in place. The problem is that nobody really thought about how these would operate when you have a movement like Hamas that does conduct terrorist operations, in the government or quasi-government like the Palestinian Authority. So people are not quite sure—we’re talking not simply private actors, but even governmental actors—about what they can do and what they cannot do under the law, what is legal, and what is not.

And, of course, the United States has a very special relationship with Israel, and I expect the United States would like to go in tandem with Israel on any actions toward the new Palestinian Authority, right?

I think that’s basically true. I mean the Israelis are absolutely delighted with how much the world has lined up behind them on this and how the United States has lined up with Israel. But the Israelis have extremely practical concerns as well. They hate Hamas probably more than the Americans do, and yet the political, economic, and humanitarian chaos that we’re talking about would take place on their border. So the Israelis may actually bend on this first. It might be bending out of necessity. I don’t expect the United States to bend without the Israelis bending first. The most they will do is perhaps wink at what the Europeans are doing, or at least tolerate it. But even that would be a controversial move here.

Now the Israelis have said, at least Olmert did, that they’ll pay money to the hospitals for medical care and things out of this frozen tax money.

Yes, I mean there’s some of that going on, and I think that’s based on the fiction that essentially [that] this is sort of a narrow humanitarian problem; all you have to do is supply some hospitals with food. In fact you’re talking not simply about hospitals, you’re talking about the entire educational infrastructure, and you’re talking about the entire political infrastructure as well. So to me, this whole talk about not letting a humanitarian disaster occur misses the point that political chaos is the bigger threat than the humanitarian one.

So what’s the solution?

Well there is no easy solution, and that’s perhaps the most important thing to notice. I think there is perhaps a hidden hope in some corners of the United States and in Israel that we can somehow undo these election results, maybe bring Fatah back to power. I think that that’s a dream. If it did happen, the way that it would happen would be through violence and a military or security force coup, and that’s a road that I think causes far deeper problems than solutions. So what we’ve got to do is I think realize that the Hamas government is probably here to stay, at least for four years, and to try and manage that situation by essentially trying to keep the Palestinian Authority alive and perhaps take what to me is remarkable in Arab politics, an embryonic two-party system emerging among Palestinians, and encourage that development.

Now you make a point that of course it was President Bush himself who a couple of years ago said the first test of the democracy in the Middle East would be in the Palestinian sector. Has that come back to haunt him?

I think so. The Bush administration picked its two first places to push democracy in Palestine and Iraq, and there were reasons for that. It didn’t like the particular leaders who were in power there. And in both cases it turned out the process of bringing down a leader—in one case was done by American military invasion, the other, basically he was isolated and then died, Yasir Arafat—was the easy part. Building a democratic political system to replace the previous political system that was dominated by one leader has proved to be extremely difficult. I’m more optimistic about the possibility of democracy emerging in the Palestinian case, because there’s more of a basis on which to build, but it’s got to be seen as a long-term project.

You do make an interesting point that under the Palestinian constitution, there won’t be new elections until 2010. I think a lot of Americans thought it was like the European system where if the government falls, elections are held.

Yes, and there’s something very interesting that’s going on here. The Palestinian constitution was amended back in 2003 and was aimed specifically at Yasir Arafat when he was president, and one of the things that Bush called for at that time was an empowered parliament. So the Palestinians did what was basically being demanded of them, and we’ve got Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], the man we like, as president, whose power’s been diminished, and we’ve got Hamas in parliament, and there’s really no way to get them out before new elections.

Of course, the irony is that things are actually fairly calm right now on the terror front, except for a couple of Islamic Jihad operations. Hamas has kept its truce going well beyond a year now.

Yes, it’s largely kept its truce. It has not given up on its ideological commitment to what it calls resistance, so Israelis are understandably worried that this is temporary, but the real short-term concern does not come from Hamas, it comes from Islamic Jihad and from Fatah, which is an extremely disorganized party and it’s quite conceivable that some groups within Fatah will basically say to Hamas, "We’re going to do to you what you did to us, that is, launch attacks against Israel and have you held responsible."

Should the quartet try some kind of international meeting, inviting Israel and the Palestinian Authority to a meeting? It reminds me of the days when people were talking about finding some way of engaging the PLO.

Ultimately, perhaps that makes some sense, but I think it’s politically impossible. The sorts of action that should be going on right now are probably not a big international meeting, with all the spotlight that entails, but a lot of very quiet diplomacy. The fact is that Israelis don’t know much about Hamas. It’s a confusing movement that sends out all kinds of different signals. Hamas has no experience dealing with Israelis either. And so what probably should be encouraged right now are unofficial contacts, or contacts that are strictly off-the-record.

I think to move immediately to direct diplomatic public contact would be a big problem for both Hamas and for Israel, and I don’t think either side’s ready for it.

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