How Mitchell should deal with Hamas

by Alon Ben-Meir Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for
Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and
Middle Eastern studies.
Web: www.alonben-meir.com
30.01.2009

The recent appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East is
no doubt a positive sign of President Obama's commitment to the region,
signalling that there will be immediate and direct American involvement in the
Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. Mitchell, who was the architect of Ireland's
Good Friday Agreement, is largely seen as an honest broker and a tough
negotiator. He is a firm advocate of diplomacy, yet his success will ultimately
depend on the authority he is given to accomplish his mission. The full backing
of the president and involvement of Secretary of State Clinton must be part and
parcel of any outcome Mitchell can procure.

One of the most urgent issues that Mr. Mitchell must grapple with is what to do
with Hamas, especially in the wake of the Gaza war. There are many
right-of-center Israelis who believe that Hamas-as a terrorist organization
sworn to Israel's destruction-is simply irredeemable and must therefore be
destroyed. These people are pursuing an unachievable goal, trying to obscure a
reality while losing sight of Hamas' changing circumstances and political
fortunes. In fact, the same thing has been said about the Palestine Liberation
Organization, but over the years the PLO has changed with the circumstances and
time has come to choose a political solution rather than continuing senseless
resistance. The argument that unlike the secular PLO, Hamas' ideology is
religiously based and is not likely to change must be measured against Hamas'
ultimate choice, which is political survival. Hamas is a grass-roots movement
and will not die a natural death. As the Gaza war has amply demonstrated, even
Israel's colossal military power as compared to Hamas' has its limitations as
Hamas is deeply embedded in the civilian community. They have become part of the
Palestinian social fabric, especially in Gaza, and have shown tremendous
capacity for clean governance and realism. They want to stay in power and
ideally seek to capture power in the West Bank as well, but they also understand
their limitations. The Gaza war may have jolted Hamas to realize that the
political tide and events on the ground are mounting against them and that a
change in direction may be necessary to remain politically vital.

The Gaza war has caused a serious split between Hamas' political leadership in
Damascus, which has advocated further resistance, and the leaders in Gaza who
suffered the brunt of the Israeli onslaught and were looking to end the Israeli
incursion as quickly as possible. Other than protesting against the Israeli
military campaign, no country, including Iran, has come to Hamas' aid, save
sending some money, a fact that might just awaken Hamas to a painful
realization. Egypt, who is determined not to allow an off-shoot government of
the Muslim Brotherhood as a neighbour made no secret of its support of the
Israeli assault and put insurmountable pressure on Hamas to accept a ceasefire
on its own terms. In addition, Egypt continued to exert pressure on Hamas to
establish a unity government with Fatah. The recent meeting between Hamas' and
the Palestinian Authority's representatives in Cairo offers a first positive
sign, and the prospect of a reinvigorated political process.

Saudi Arabia, which is weary of Iran's ambition to become the region's hegemon,
has been critical of Hamas' close ties to Tehran, accusing it of undermining the
national security interests of the Arab Sunni states. The Saudis are exerting
quiet pressure on Hamas to abandon its Iranian sponsors and come back to the
Arab fold. Adding to this mix is the fact that the Palestinians in the West Bank
remained restrained throughout the Gaza war, sending another ominous signal to
Hamas of their determination to abandon violent resistance in favour of a
political solution. Concerted efforts led by the United States, the EU and
Israel to interdict shipments of weapons by air, sea, and land through tunnels
to deprive Hamas from rearming will likely add to the pressure on Hamas to
modify its long-term strategy. The question is how much of this leaves room for
influencing Hamas' direction. The answer certainly lies in the level and the
consistency of involvement of the US, EU, the Arab states and Israel in building
a new structure of peace that will include Hamas based on the changing reality
in Gaza and Hamas' real options.

Hamas cannot be ignored. Once it joins the PA in a unity government and
potentially agrees to embrace the Arab Peace Initiative (which is tantamount to
recognizing Israel) and as long as the ceasefire is holding, the United States
should then reconsider its position toward Hamas. Once the US opens up a direct
dialogue with Syria, Hamas may feel marginalized and consider joining the
political process in some capacity. In Ireland, Mr. Mitchell stressed the need
to talk to and deal with any radical movements in order to resolve a conflict.
He absolutely believes that one must talk to the enemy and spare no effort to
reach a political agreement. That does not mean giving in to Hamas' demands or
talking to them at a presidential level; it only means that all avenues must be
explored before giving up on finding a peaceful solution. Mitchell will be duty
bound to find out precisely where Hamas stands, and he should be able to do so
as he sees fit including possible direct engagement.

During this period the United States and Israel must take extraordinary measures
to reward moderation and enhance the stature of the PA. This is something that
Israel is more willing to do now especially because of the calm that the PA has
been able to maintain throughout the Gaza war. Indeed, peace between Israel and
the Palestinians based on a two-state solution must be comprehensive, and it
will not come to pass unless it includes both Gaza with Hamas in it and the West
Bank.

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