Spoiler Alert

The United States and Israel have long attempted to cut Hamas out of the diplomatic game. But as direct talks kick off in Washington, the party appears more than happy to sit on the sidelines.


On Aug. 31, four Israeli settlers were killed by Palestinian gunmen near the West Bank city of Hebron. Abu Obeida, the spokesman for Hamas’s military wing, the Qassam Brigades, said the group "announces its full responsibility for the heroic operation in Hebron."

The killings suggest that Hamas will overreach in trying to gain political capital from widespread Palestinian opposition to the negotiations hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington this week. This may weaken Hamas at the expense of secular parties opposed to the format of the talks, but not necessarily to the gain of Fatah, the flagging party headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The negotiations come on the heels of four months of failed "proximity talks," in which the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership and U.S. special envoy George Mitchell were unable to productively engage the Israelis on any of the core issues of the dispute or even convince the Israelis to agree on an agenda for the talks. Abbas, like virtually all other Palestinian politicians, had insisted that Israel agree to basic parameters for negotiations and end continued settlement activity on occupied Palestinian territory. Having to climb down without any of his terms being met has emboldened other Palestinian leaders, parties, and organizations, which have united to denounce the talks.

As Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu head to the negotiating table, some observers are lamenting the Obama administration’s failure to include Hamas in its diplomatic engagement efforts. But given the relative unanimity of so many groups opposing the talks in their current format, this complaint misses the point. Hamas leaders do not want to be part of negotiations because they are confident they will fail.

What defines "failed talks" for Hamas? On a practical level, Hamas would consider talks that entrench Fatah’s authority over liberated territory at its expense as a failure. The concern over whether Palestine will have a pluralistic political system is one of great concern to Palestinians — concern that has only been deepened by the continuing entrenchment of political power both in the Gaza Strip and in West Bank cities administered by the Palestinian Authority.

But when it comes to its views on a final settlement to the conflict, Hamas shares many of the same positions as other secular Palestinian parties, including Fatah. These groups similarly believe that any negotiations must end the occupation that Israel began in 1967 and ensure Palestinians’ ability to exercise sovereignty over their state. Yes, Hamas has demanded the Palestinian right of return for millions of Palestinians and their descendants who were displaced before, during, and after Israel’s creation in 1948, but the group has never suggested a practical means to obtain this goal. Hamas would certainly consider talks that "sign away" Palestinian rights as a failure. But again, this is a standard position of Fatah as well. This accordance of views suggests that, under the right conditions, Hamas’s inclusion in a Palestinian national movement that endorses negotiations could potentially strengthen the chances for peace.

(True, Hamas, like the Israeli political parties on the right such as the governing Likud, have charters, party platforms, or constitutions that contradict their more reasonable publicly stated positions. However, waiting for ideological consistency in either case is probably counterproductive.)

Some in Hamas likely favor continuing its cease-fire with Israel and trying to reap political capital from the daily humiliations it expects Netanyahu to inflict on the Palestinian negotiators. Yet the Aug. 31 attack on settlers suggest that not everyone in the group believes the talks will fail on their own.

It is doubtful, however, that there would be significant Palestinian support for a renewal of violence against Israelis during negotiations, and Hamas stands to lose considerable domestic standing if it pursues that route. A recent poll indicated that almost one-third of Palestinians in the occupied territories support direct negotiations and another third support proximity talks. Regardless of the accuracy of the poll, most critics of direct negotiations have focused on Abbas’s inability to convince Israel to commit to ending provocations on the ground or to agree on terms of reference for the talks — not the concept of peace itself.

As Rob Malley, Peter Harling, and Daniel Levy have pointed out recently, a better approach to the Israeli-Arab conflict would be to launch multilateral talks across all fronts while simultaneously encouraging Palestinian reconciliation. That could help keep potential spoilers from seeking to thwart a negotiated settlement — and reinvigorate the Palestine Liberation Organization as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people as a whole. And the Obama administration could avoid the domestic political blowback that would inevitably result from dealing directly with Hamas.

Such an approach would give Abbas far more strength to negotiate a comprehensive agreement with Israel than he possesses now. It is true that, to satisfy a newly invigorated PLO, he would also have to negotiate far more aggressively than in the past — but any resulting deal would be more likely to stick. Given the current distribution of political power in Palestine, it is still an open question whether Abbas could generate majority support for a peace deal that he is forced to negotiate without the support of the PLO or any member party, including his own Fatah.

A new and inclusive Palestinian national movement that included not only Fatah and Hamas, but also Mustafa Barghouti’s Palestinian National Initiative and Salam Fayyad’s Third Way, along with the old-guard parties such as the Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine, would be able to better safeguard a democratic and pluralistic future for Palestine. The more such parties are convinced they can benefit by the creation of a system that guarantees a level political playing field, the more likely they will be to support an agreement.

Allowing the emergence of a unified Palestinian national movement would be a good start toward reaching a lasting settlement, but it must also be coupled with aggressive, multilateral U.S. diplomacy. The United States should seek to resolve not only Israel’s dispute with the Palestinians, but also its conflicts with Syria and Lebanon. Such a regional approach would create a significant group of stakeholders that would reinforce Palestinian engagement and discourage actions that violate international law, including killings of civilians.

The question for Obama now is whether the United States is prepared to undertake the necessary diplomatic engagement — and accompanying political risks — to finally end the occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territory. If the answer is no, Hamas will not be the only party arguing against any form of negotiations. Ultimately, there will be no Palestinian party, including Fatah, that will be able to mak
e the argument for too much longer that the United States can be an interlocutor for justice and peace. And if that happens, these talks may ultimately bury the dream of a two-state solution forever.

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