Should the world talk to Hamas?
A consensus to isolate the group is fraying due to the lack of political results.
After Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006, the international community's reaction was swift, clear, and virtually unanimous: The extremist Islamist political party would be isolated and barred from international negotiations until it recognized Israel, renounced violence, and agreed to respect earlier accords in the Middle East peace process.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
More than two years later, cracks are beginning to show in the wall of resistance to Hamas, with some Western officials (and even a few Israelis) wondering publicly if it isn't time to engage an organization that continues to lead a large part of the Palestinian people. The question is even being posed in Washington.
The hand-wringing over talking to Hamas reflects a shift away from the black-and-white diplomatic approach of President Bush's first term to a more realist and results-oriented tendency in the second. If the US can talk to archenemy Iran to get something it wants in Iraq, the reasoning goes, then why not explore what might be gained from someone sitting down with Hamas?
So far, the Bush administration is not officially weakening its ban on talking to Hamas. On Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney, who was in Jerusalem for meetings with Israeli leaders and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, showed no signs of softening the US stance in any way. He accused Hamas of "doing everything they can to torpedo the peace process" and nixed the idea of a Palestinian reconciliation between Hamas and the moderate Fatah prior to Hamas giving up control of the Gaza Strip.
Still, a different approach can already be seen in the American effort to encourage Egypt's go-between role in delivering an Israel-Hamas cease-fire, in growing European support for contacts with Hamas, and even in the "I'll talk to our enemies" position of Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama.
"We're seeing the doubts about the wisdom of isolating Hamas – not because anyone suddenly loves them or agrees with them, but because they hold what Israel wants, which is peace and security, and because of a dawning realization that if there is going to be a Mideast peace deal, it is going to have to include ... talking to Hamas," says John Hulsman, a scholar in residence at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "It's a return to that idea that diplomacy is fundamentally about talking to your enemies."
Intent of the original strategy
The main reason for the growing doubts about the isolation strategy is that it has not worked as planned. It was designed to weaken Hamas politically by turning Palestinian voters against it – notably by thwarting its ability to deliver services to the Palestinians of Gaza, which it controls. On the contrary, the plan seems to have largely enhanced Hamas in stature.
The idea of boosting moderate President Abbas among the Palestinian people while encouraging their estrangement from Hamas leaders like Ismail Haniyeh has also failed.
Recent surveys back up that conclusion. Palestinians in the West Bank show a growing preference for Hamas over Fatah, the organization of Abbas, according to a poll by the respected Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. The poll – which showed backing for the shooting attack at a Jewish seminary in Jerusalem this month – suggests that support is increasing for Hamas's rocket attacks and other aggressive means of responding to Israeli attacks.
The poll also shows that two-thirds of Palestinians support a two-state solution to the conflict with Israel. But it indicates that Palestinians would now elect Mr. Haniyeh as president over Abbas – a reversal from a December poll by the Palestinian Center.