Yes, you can work with Hamas

The US approach to the Palestinian territories is inviting disaster.

By

The Bush administration's approach to the divided Palestinian territories is inviting disaster. By favoring the "good" Fatah over the "evil" Hamas, it is letting a dysfunctional ideology trump a good opportunity to bring progress to the Palestinians – and to the larger quest for peace with Israel. There can be no peace process with a Palestinian government that excludes Hamas.

Here are specific steps that President Bush can take to correct course:

• Announce support for a Hamas-Fatah dialogue to revive a unity government and quietly open diplomatic contacts with Hamas.

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• Commit serious diplomatic muscle to restarting substantive Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

• In cooperation with its Quartet partners – the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations – convene a peace conference informed by the US commitment to a two-state solution.

How did the US end up in its current predicament? In January 2006, Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza cast their ballots. Voting for the first time in 10 years, and resentful of corruption and arrogance in the Palestinian Authority, they decided for Hamas, described by many in the West as a terrorist group. Blindsided by its legitimate victory, the Bush administration faced a stark dilemma. If it accepted the result, a group that has launched terrorist attacks against Israel would be permitted to enjoy power. However, since the US had strongly backed the elections, rejecting the outcome would be hypocritical.

Seasoned diplomats urged a middle path: Work with Hamas and foster a pragmatic dialogue with Israel. But the US rejected this. Instead, it campaigned to isolate and financially undermine the Hamas government, while working secretly to overthrow it.

That policy prompted derision of US claims to foster democracy in the Arab world. And it upheld the radical Islamists' claim that democracy is a sham.

Despite its history of anti-Israeli terrorism, Hamas has effectively suspended suicide bombings since its 2006 political victory. Ironically, groups affiliated with Fatah have recently claimed more Israeli victims than Hamas.

Soon after the elections, Hamas sought to form a broad coalition government. Non-Hamas politicians committed to a two-state solution did consider joining a unity government with Hamas.

But they were warned off by the US, which subsequently led to the political and economic boycott against the Palestinian government and people. Israel, for its part, confiscated taxes and duties that it collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority to drain the Hamas coffers.

These decisions deepened Palestinian suffering. According to the UN, a family of four must earn over $2 per day to stay above the poverty line. Because of the US-led boycott, the number of Gazans living in poverty increased from an already high 65 percent to 80 percent. Among West Bankers, the percentage of poverty-stricken rose from 30 to 55.

The White House reacted to the Hamas conquest of Gaza by expediently supporting a rump Palestinian government under the elected president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Meanwhile, the defining fact of Palestinian life among Gazans and West Bankers is dispossession and humiliation under the continued Israeli occupation.

Despite the dangerous division of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, it is unlikely that Palestinians will cede their desire for a state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Hamas voters overwhelmingly support a two-state solution, and the Hamas leadership has declared it would honor any agreement ratified by popular referendum.

Hamas has proposed a long-term truce with Israel but both sides must demonstrate a real commitment to end attacks against each other. Hamas continues to recognize the legitimacy of Mr. Abbas and calls for renewed cooperation with Fatah.

Can it truly be to America's or Israel's benefit to support a fractured Palestinian government that needs dictatorial powers to survive? The electoral and military success of Hamas was a verdict on the failure of the Fatah old guard. A smarter policy would work toward broadening the scope of Palestinian politics – not blessing a Fatah administration that is rapidly becoming a useful instrument of American and Israeli interests.

Augustus Richard Norton is professor of international relations at Boston University and author of "Hezbollah: A Short History." Sara Roy is a senior research scholar at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies and author of "Failing Peace: Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict."

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