’Inevitable’ that U.S. Will Have to Deal with Hamas

Middle East expert Richard W. Murphy says the United States runs the risk of delaying the Israeli-Palestinian peace process by blackballing Hamas. Though opening relations with the group may be necessary, he says he does not expect it to come quickly.

January 20, 2009

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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Richard W. Murphy, a veteran Middle East expert, says that just as the United States could have accomplished more in peacemaking between Israel and Palestinians if it had not banned talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization for some thirteen years, it is running the same kind of risk in not dealing at all with Hamas. "I think we are now getting pulled into a more active position on the ground [in Gaza]. Whether this will lead to the opening of political contact with Hamas is the question. I don’t think it will happen quickly but I think it is inevitable. Hamas is, in my opinion, a legitimate representative of part of the Palestinian community."

One of the problems, I would think, that the United States finds itself in is how to deal with Israeli-Palestinian issues when Washington will not talk to Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls Gaza. Is this problem the same as when you were in the State Department and the United States agreed with Israel not to deal at all with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)?

I do think there’s an analogy. We had explicitly pledged to the Israelis as part of the second disengagement agreement with Egypt in September 1975 not to "recognize or negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization as long as the Palestine Liberation Organization does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and does not accept Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338." That was a mantra which lasted thirteen years. In that time, we had no discussions with the PLO other than on security issues affecting our embassy in Beirut.

Were there efforts to alter the ban?

Throughout those years there were individuals encouraging us to have some contact with the PLO, to explore with them what possibilities there would be to include them in peacemaking. But we stuck very faithfully to that pledge.

"When we start playing intra-Palestinian politics, I believe we’re rather quickly in over our head."

So did that hurt American diplomacy? Could the United States have done more in that period if we had dealt directly with the PLO?

I normally don’t play the "what if game," but this is a case in which I’ve come to feel we would have been much better off and the region could have been better off had we engaged with the PLO in those early days. It would have been very controversial with Israel; it also would have been very controversial with Jordan since King Hussein did retain, in the 1970s, the belief that he could reassert his leadership over the West Bank. And the Jordanian option was very highly preferred by the Israelis. But it didn’t work. What happened in those years was the inexorable progress of the settler movement which has hamstrung the ability of the Israelis to make a deal with Palestinians and dented their credibility with the Palestinians. You can ask if there is any Israeli leader who is ready to tackle the settler movement and work out a deal which would meet minimal Palestinian expectations for a state of their own? So I’d say that our not engaging with the PLO delayed or limited our ability to influence it.

Yasir Arafat, the PLO leader, finally did go through the "striptease," as he called it, and in one concise statement in December 1988 made the necessary statements. Within forty-eight hours, U.S. diplomats were talking to the PLO.

How does that relate to the United States not dealing with Hamas?

On Hamas, a group which has not, to my knowledge, ever launched a deliberate blow against the United States, such as the PLO did--even though some Americans have been killed in Hamas acts of terrorism in Israel. Right now there is a cease-fire. Israelis are determined to do nothing that will allow any degree of legitimacy to Hamas. There is the same strong Israeli opposition to this movement, as there was toward the PLO. But Israel found a way to deal with the PLO. Israeli Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Shamir with great unhappiness put up with the PLO presence within the Jordanian delegation at the Madrid conference in 1992. The PLO today, in the person of President Mahmoud Abbas, has been a favored negotiator. Ironically, in the 1970s, Hamas, which was seen by Israel as a counter to the PLO since Israel believed that Hamas would never have any serious appeal. There is now a defacto cease-fire in Gaza but you have the Israeli military spokesmen saying, "Watch out because it’s not so recently their rockets could reach only twenty kilometers; now they can go forty kilometers." Israel is going to do it’s damndest to be sure that those tunnels between Egypt and Gaza are closed, and there’s going to be a lot of discussions and movement on the ground to see who will enforce the closing. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt does not want foreign forces on Egyptian territory, and Israel is going to be very insistent that those tunnels not become a conduit for weapons smuggling. Well, is Israel going to open the border crossing points? Is Israel going to open transit for food and medicine without restriction? Can that be done given their concerns about the weapons smuggling? I don’t know how that’s going to work out but I think we are now getting pulled into a more active position on the ground [in Gaza]. Whether this will lead to the opening of political contact with Hamas is the question. I don’t think it will happen quickly but I think it is inevitable. Hamas is, in my opinion, a legitimate representative of part of the Palestinian community.

Hamas did win the Parliamentary election in 2006.

Yes, it made us look foolish to be beating the drums for democracy and elections globally, and then to be turning our back on the Palestinian elections and endorsing a blockade that turned into a siege and forcing down the standards of living in Gaza. We fully endorsed the effort to cut Hamas off, to shut down contacts between American banks and banks in Gaza if they could be shown to be involved in getting money to Hamas. Our people were enjoined to not talk to any ministry representative in Gaza if the minister himself were from Hamas. So we endorsed the Israeli program and life got very hard for the Palestinians, and we’ll see how the story turns out on who broke the cease-fire. Was it Israel in November? What was Hamas’ intent in refusing to renew the cease-fire? They say it’s because the Israelis would not fulfill the commitment they had made last June on opening the border crossing points and allowing the food and medicines in unrestricted. And Israel said it would authorize, I believe, 15 percent of what had been flowing in a year earlier. That was not enough, and Hamas said, "We’re not going to renew the cease-fire." And Israel said, "In that case, you’re breaking the cease-fire." And the firing intensified and led to these last three weeks of bombardment.

Should the United States open talks with Hamas?

I don’t think we can, politically, move directly to open contacts with Hamas. What we can stop doing is endorsing a policy deliberately aimed at fighting the Palestinians and weakening Hamas. This is a delicate job because we have pledged our support to the PLO, to the Palestine Authority, we are training--and I gather the program is going quite well--Palestinian security forces in the West Bank. We’re saying Abbas should be accepted back in Gaza as the leader. Can we find a way to stop a devisive policy while not embracing Hamas? Can we manage to work through our role that’s been vilified strongly in a number of Arab states? Cairo got a cease-fire last summer, so it has the patience and it has the skills to get something again, indeed, with our support. But I think there are ways to signal that we’re not going to continue to blackball Hamas as a player in Palestinian politics.

Does that need a statement by the U.S.? That would really touch off a political storm in the United States and Israel, wouldn’t it?

I don’t think it needs a statement by the United States. I think it needs some measures on the ground, a context where there’s a large job that has to be done on rebuilding now to restore what previously was a poor infrastructure and is now miserable and largely destroyed. We can start practical cooperation with some of those ministries that we blackballed. There are ways to do it without a statement.

"I don’t think we can, politically, move directly to open contacts with Hamas … But I think there are ways to signal that we’re not going to continue to blackball Hamas as a player in Palestinian politics."

Do you think it would be useful--there’s been some talk by some people of convening an all Arab conference to meet with Israel, in which Hamas would be included; in other words, broaden the negotiating table.

What the Arabs are hoping--and I have no reason to believe that either is going to be clever enough--is that Hamas will find a way to rebuild its ties with Abbas. That’s not going to be easy there on both sides to make this work. The Israelis want to deny Hamas any political role, and yet they have done so little that’s been visible to the Palestinians, to really shore up Abbas. You know there’s been endless talk of private progress in the talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas but there is nothing persuasive out there in public for the Palestinians to see, to shore up Abbas. If Hamas could get back to the positions that some of its more moderate spokesmen made in earlier days that, "we see Israel existing but we’re not going to be compelled to say we disavow violence right now without any prospect of being accepted as a player." Some of the more moderate Hamas officials used to say "we’re not going to rule out eventual acceptance of Israel’s right to exist. We said we would honor existing Palestinian agreements-we never said we accepted them but we said we’d honor them." So I think there’s an opportunity now but it does mean flexibility on both Israel and Abbas’s part, flexibility and adeptness, which neither may be ready to display. But I think there are practical things we can do internationally, practical things we can do with Egypt, in supporting their efforts. And, no, I don’t see any point in a White House statement or secretary of state visit or something like that to show we accept Hamas as a major player. It doesn’t have to be done that way.

Is it likely the U.S. will get involved in trying to mediate or is it too soon for that right now?

It’s time to stop being the devisive voice. I think we’ve shown in Iraq how hard it is for an outsider in Iraq to pick the right players, to put the right combination together. You could say it’s much easier in Palestinian politics; we know them individually and collectively much better than we knew the Iraqis when we started there six years back, but our ability, our skills are still not highly developed, and when we start playing intra-Palestinian politics, I believe we’re rather quickly in over our head.

Do you think if we opened a dialogue with Iran this might lead to a lessening of tensions between Israel and Hamas?

I do believe that a new effort with Iran is called for and that the spin-offs could be expected with Hamas-Israel, with Palestinians-Israel, with Hezbollah-Beirut, and with Syria. I think Iran’s developed into a major regional player in no small part because of our policies. And as Iran can do harm to us as we try to now craft our policies on Iraq it can potentially do something useful for our purposes in other parts of the region.