Stephen M. Walt

Talking to Hamas?

Talking to Hamas?

Roger Cohen offers another stellar column here, on the need to start reaching out to moderate elements within Hamas, with the aim of encouraging a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. Need I add that this is the only realistic approach to take?

Of course, talking to Hamas is unappealing for several obvious reasons. As Cohen notes, the Hamas charter contains a number of truly “vile” elements, including some odious anti-Semitic declarations. For Hamas to invoke a discredited forgery like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is both offensive and ignorant, and it weakens their claim to be taken seriously as a political movement. And then there’s the moral hazard problem: If we start talking to Hamas, do we encourage other extremist groups to think they can get recognition too if they hold out long enough?

So it’s not surprising that U.S. policymakers have been reluctant to talk to Hamas, even indirectly. But look at it this way: When you make mistakes, you usually end up in a worse position and you have to do things you would have preferred to avoid. (Case in point: Iraq. We screwed up there, and we are therefore facing circumstances and having to do things we would otherwise have chosen not to do). In other words, actions have consequences.  

The same principle applies here. Back in 1993, when the Oslo peace process began, only about 15 percent of the Palestinian population backed Hamas. Then Israel, the United States, and the PLO squandered the historic opportunity that Oslo afforded. Israel continued to expand its settlements, the United States put no pressure on it to stop and mismanaged the negotiations (especially at Camp David in 2000), and the Palestinian Authority remained deeply corrupt and made its own share of blunders, too. George W. Bush made the problem worse on his watch, refusing to engage in the peace process and letting Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert do pretty much whatever they wanted.  

The result?: Hamas grew more and more popular, and eventually won the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006. According to Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, the recent assault on Gaza seems to have increased their popularity even more. Bottom line: If we didn’t want to have to deal with Hamas, we should have been following a different policy for the past 15 years.

Hence Cohen’s clear-eyed conclusion: Hamas is now an enduring element of the political landscape and the only realistic thing to do is recognize that fact and start dealing with them, provided that they are willing to renounce violence. There’s no love lost between Fatah and Hamas, for example, but Fatah’s declining fortunes have forced them to begin new talks for a unity government. I’m pretty sure that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas or Prime Minister Salam Fayyad didn’t really want to do this, it was simply the best option available to them at this point.

The other reason to talk to Hamas — even if we limit ourselves to indirect contacts at first — is to try to change their long-term thinking. Back in the 1980s, contacts between the PLO and pro-peace members of the American Jewish community eventually led Yasser Arafat to accept the UN resolutions 242 and 338 (the key resolutions governing the peace process) in December 1988, thereby taking a key step towards acceptance of Israel’s existence. This incident merely illustrates the obvious notion that talking with your adversaries can be even more important than talking with your friends.

I don’t know if a similar evolution is possible with Hamas — though former President Jimmy Carter, who has met with several Hamas leaders in a private capacity, believes it is — but I doubt we can persuade them to accept Israel or to eventually embrace a two-state solution if we eschew any contact at all. Talking doesn’t mean surrendering our core commitments — let alone “selling Israel down the river,” as some may fear — it simply means recognizing that no lasting peace is possible without Hamas on board. Contact would also give us a chance to take the measure of them directly, instead of having to guess, or having to rely on second-hand reports. Wouldn’t it be better to know exactly what we are dealing with, and to let them know exactly where we stand, than to continue sticking our heads in the sand and hoping they are going to go away?

AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images