My talk with Hamas about peace with Israel
The US should follow the Northern Ireland and South African models – which had principles, not preconditions.
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On Jan. 21 he named former Senate majority leader George Mitchell his envoy to achieve that peace, and Mr. Mitchell has since made four fact-finding trips to the Middle East. But neither has yet said how the administration will grapple with one of the biggest challenges that peace diplomacy faces: the continuing strength of the Palestinian Islamist movement, Hamas.
Hamas has been on the State Department's "terrorism list" since its founding in 1987. It has steadfastly refused to recognize Israel. But it has also won – and kept – considerable popular support among Palestinians.
In 2006 it won parliamentary elections held in the West Bank and Gaza. More recently it survived the military onslaught Israel launched against Gaza last December – and in the wake of that war, Hamas's popularity among Palestinians increased.
Meanwhile, Washington's ongoing campaign to strengthen the rival Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has backfired badly. Rather than strengthening Fatah, the aid that Washington and its allies have sent to Mr. Abbas has further fueled the nepotism and corruption within Fatah and hastened its internal decline.
Clearly, if there is to be a Palestinian team at any peace negotiations, its work must be supported by Hamas as well as Fatah. But can Hamas, whose 1988 Charter still rejects participation in peace conferences and calls for an end to the State of Israel, really be judged a valid party to the peacemaking?
The history of numerous other peace efforts indicates it can. Consider the examples of South Africa and Northern Ireland. Nationalist parties there that were once denounced as "terrorist" and hunted down ended up as valued – indeed, essential – participants in the peacemaking.
In both those earlier cases, parties invited to the table were required to verifiably set aside their arms (though not, in the first instance, to disarm completely). They were also required to agree to principles of nonviolent, democratic decisionmaking. It worked.
Stereotypes and challenges
Many Westerners might think of Hamas as only a collection of gun-toting fanatics intent on killing civilian Israelis. But Hamas also has a strong civilian wing that provides valued services in many Palestinian communities.
In 2006 it was that wing that participated peacefully and successfully in the nationwide vote. Meanwhile, Hamas's military wing has shown during several periods that it can exercise full or near-full restraint during cease-fires: That happened in 2005 and 2008, and has generally been the case in recent months, too.
One major challenge for today's peacemakers has been Hamas's refusal to meet the three preconditions that Washington and its allies in the international "Quartet" set in 2006, before they would even start talking to it.