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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 2/11/09

Can Mitchell Succeed? Let Him Talk to Hamas

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Rep. Delahunt has taken a constructive step by introducing a resolution in support of former Senator Mitchell’s diplomacy for peace. Supporting this resolution should be a no-brainer - even your Representative can do it. [You can ask your Representative to sign on here; the list of co-sponsors, 50 at this writing, is here.]

Mitchell needs more support, in part because at the moment it’s far from obvious whether Washington will let Mitchell be Mitchell. He’s been praised for his work in the Northern Ireland peace process, but for all the difficulties Mitchell faced in Northern Ireland, there was one thing he could count on: no-one prevented him from talking to one of the key parties in the conflict. Mitchell talked to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, leaders of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, considered at the time [with obvious justification] by the British, the U.S. and the Protestant leadership in Northern Ireland to be a terrorist group. Today, Sinn Fein is part of the Northern Ireland government. But at the moment, Mitchell’s not allowed to talk to Ismail Haniyeh or other members of the political leadership of Hamas, even though they won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections and constitute the de facto government of Gaza.

Why should U.S. diplomacy engage Hamas? The answer is very simple. It is very likely that if the U.S. were to engage Hamas diplomatically, it would be much easier to achieve a peaceful political resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict. On the other hand, if the U.S. were to continue the Bush Administration’s policy of trying to isolate Hamas, the supporters of Hamas, and the people living under Hamas jurisdiction, it is very likely that achieving a peaceful political resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict would be much more difficult.

Therefore, if the true and primary goal of U.S. policy is to promote a peaceful political resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict, then the correct U.S. policy is to diplomatically engage Hamas.

It may well be that U.S. policy, or major actors that shape U.S. policy, have other, even contradictory goals. If so, those goals should be stated and defended. But let us assume for the sake of discussion that achieving a peaceful political resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict really is the goal of U.S. policy, and examine how engaging Hamas could contribute to that goal, and failing to engage Hamas could thwart it.

First: a political resolution of the conflict that involves Fatah and Hamas would be, in Palestinian terms, politically legitimate. Suppose that there is a political agreement between Israel and the Palestinians attempting to achieve a political resolution of the conflict, and that on the Palestinian side, both Fatah and Hamas signed off on this agreement. Taken together, Fatah and Hamas represent the overwhelming majority of Palestinian public opinion. If you have an agreement with Fatah and Hamas, you essentially have an agreement with Palestinians as a whole. No major actor would question the legitimacy of such an agreement.

Second: obviously any meaningful agreement between Israel and the Palestinians purporting to resolve the conflict is going to include, along with whatever else it concludes, a commitment from the Palestinian side to forswear violence against Israel. Obviously, the Israeli side - and third parties supporting the agreement - are going to expect that this commitment be meaningful. For such a commitment to be meaningful requires two things: it requires that the agreement be perceived as politically legitimate among Palestinians and related actors - see above - and it requires that the Palestinian side have the capacity to substantially impose the provisions of the agreement on any recalcitrant dissidents. Fatah and Hamas together have that capacity. Indeed, Hamas alone has demonstrated that it has that capacity in Gaza, when it substantially enforced its ceasefire agreement with Israel on more radical groups, even though Israel did not lift or significantly ease the blockade on Gaza, as it had been expected to do.

On the other hand, it is clear that Hamas retains the power to “disrupt” any peace process. After Israel’s invasion of Gaza, no-one is even bothering to say the word “Annapolis.”

You don’t have to believe the story that was largely propagated in the U.S. media about the recent Israeli invasion of Gaza - that Hamas bore all or most of the responsibility for Israel’s actions - to appreciate and acknowledge that Hamas played a significant role. Hamas took a deliberate choice to let the ceasefire expire and renew rocket fire in response to the Israeli government’s continued economic strangulation and military attacks, knowing that this could provide a pretext for an Israeli invasion. It was taking a risk, and it was largely Palestinian civilians in Gaza that paid the price for that gamble. There were other choices. It could be argued, given the track record of effective international indifference to the suffering of Palestinian civilians, that other choices would not have been effective at lifting the blockade - but neither has the decision to facilitate the escalation of violence been effective, and now Gazans are worse off than before, with, among other things, 1300 dead. Obviously the overwhelming responsibility for the Israeli bombardment and invasion of Gaza lies with those who executed and paid for and supported the killing, but the responsibility of those who took actions which helped provide excuses for the killing is not zero.

So it should be clear that engagement with Hamas, if successful, could be very helpful, and continuing a policy of isolation could be very harmful.

But is there any reason to believe that a policy of engagement could be productive?

First: since a policy of engagement costs essentially nothing of concrete value, the rational threshold for engagement is low. If there is any significant probability that engagement might be useful, it should be pursued. If it fails, we have lost nothing; and indeed, if the effort is sincere, it proves to the world that the U.S. is serious, so it gains something, even if it fails. If it fails because another actor is recalcitrant, then the recalcitrant actor is exposed to criticism and pressure - including, in the case of Hamas, pressure from Palestinian and Arab public opinion.

Second: Hamas leaders have stated publicly and repeatedly that they are ready to accept a political resolution to the conflict, essentially along the lines of the international consensus and the Arab peace plan: Israel and a Palestinian state side by side, on the 1967 borders.

For example, AP reported on January 29 (”Hamas officials signal willingness to negotiate“) that

Senior officials in the Islamic group Hamas are indicating a willingness to negotiate a long-term truce with Israel as long as the borders of Gaza are opened to the rest of the world. “We want to be part of the international community,” Hamas leader Ghazi Hamad told The Associated Press at the Gaza-Egypt border, where he was coordinating Arab aid shipments. “I think Hamas has no interest now to increase the number of crises in Gaza or to challenge the world.”

Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, said in comments aired Thursday that the Palestinians must heal their internal rifts and he welcomed aid for Gaza from any source. He also seemed to leave a door open for better relations with the U.S. “I think it is not in America’s interest to stay in conflict with the Arab and Muslim world, considering its interests in the region,” Haniyeh, who remains in hiding after Israel’s onslaught, said on Al-Jazeera television. “We hope that the new American President revises all the policies of his predecessor.”

[The] three Hamas leaders interviewed said they would accept statehood in just the West Bank and Gaza and would give up their “resistance” against Israel if that were achieved. “We accept a state in the ‘67 borders,” said Hamad. “We are not talking about the destruction of Israel.”

As former President Jimmy Carter told AFP last April 13 regarding his then-upcoming meetings with Hamas officials:

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Robert Naiman is Senior Policy Analyst at Just Foreign Policy. Naiman has worked as a policy analyst and researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. He has masters degrees in economics and (more...)
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