Should the world talk to Hamas?

A consensus to isolate the group is fraying due to the lack of political results.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP
Leaders: A poll by the Palestinian Center indicates that Palestinians would elect Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (not shown) as president over current President Mahmoud Abbas.
Suhaib Salem/Reuters
Leaders: A poll by the Palestinian Center indicates that Palestinians would elect Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh as president over current President Mahmoud Abbas (not shown).

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.

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.

This last finding suggests how much the international approach to Hamas has "backfired," Mr. Hulsman says. "This for Europeans was really the wake-up call."

The evolving European thinking was expressed publicly this month by Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema, who noted a survey of Israelis showing support for talks with Hamas. "Hamas controls a very important part of the Palestinian territory, and if we want peace, we will have to involve them," he added.

In response, Israel's ambassador to Italy, Gideon Meir, told the Italian press agency ANSA, "Whoever invites us to negotiate with Hamas is actually inviting us to negotiate on the size of our coffin and on the number of flowers we want on it."

That "whoever" might now be construed to include the United States – which is encouraging Egypt to act as an intermediary between Israel and Hamas in an effort to foster negotiations that would lead to a cease-fire between the two. Also this month, the State Department posted on its Dipnote blog a "question of the week" that asked, "Should [the US] engage Hamas in the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians?"

Growing buzz in Washington

That reflects the growing buzz in Washington about the need for a new approach to Hamas. Last week, the Israel Policy Forum, a New York-based organization advocating a robust US diplomatic effort to promote a two-state solution, sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice concluding that reaching a settlement to the conflict – in particular by year's end, as Mr. Bush wants – "requires finding a way to bring Hamas into the process."

Some in Washington who oppose any opening up to an unchanged Hamas worry that it is indeed the Bush administration's goal of reaching an accord by the end of Bush's term that is encouraging a new approach. They see it as an unwise weakening of standards that had been placed on an organization that the US lists as a sponsor of terrorism.

The setting of a deadline is a "mistake" that is causing some in Washington and in other capitals to overlook "what kind of organization Hamas is," says Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). The international community should remember how long it took to divorce the Palestine Liberation Organization from violence, he says.

"We saw this movie in the '80s," Mr. Satloff told a WINEP forum last week.

The argument that Hamas "can't be wished away" and therefore must be dealt with "reflects a certain recognition of Hamas's ... barbarity," Satloff says, and it leads to the conclusion that "they must be accommodated."

But others say the debate over talking to Hamas is less about accommodation than about a growing realization that isolation is not a particularly effective diplomatic tool. The idea that nonengagement "is the ultimate pain we can inflict upon our enemies" is just as much "mythology" as the thinking that "engagement is the ultimate prize," which, once bestowed, will lead "the enemy [to] change," says Robert Malley, director of the Middle East program for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-headquartered conflict-prevention organization. Mr. Malley also spoke at the WINEP forum.

"We have to be modest about this issue," Malley says, who predicts that the debate doesn't mean the US will enter negotiations with Hamas anytime soon.

The "bottom line" right now, Malley adds, should be "what works, what doesn't work, and what are the alternative strategies?" In the case of the international community's approach to Hamas, he says, "The current strategy has not worked."

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