Middle East Roundtable
Edition 5 Volume 7 - February 05, 2009
After Gaza: Talking to Hamas
• Turkey can persuade Hamas to opt for peace - Bulent Aras
Turkey has gained strategic depth in the Middle East.
• Amman suspends its Hamas flirtation - Rana Sabbagh-Gargour
The war showed the "Hamasization" of the Jordanian street.
• Time for new Israeli thinking - Asher Susser
The Hamas rise to power was no accident but part of a profound and lasting historical process.
• Time for a change of western policy - Jonathan Steele
If Abbas is being urged to talk to Hamas, why should western governments not do likewise?
Turkey can persuade Hamas to opt for peace
From a Turkish perspective, Israel could not have committed a worse mistake than attacking Gaza and thereby blocking hopes for peace in the Middle East. Like many observers, Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed Israel for the human tragedy in Gaza. This response may not seem extraordinary if one remembers that he criticized Israel in the same way following earlier Israeli aggressions in the occupied territories. This time, however, Erdogan stated that the Israeli attack on Gaza, which began four days after PM Ehud Olmert's visit to Ankara, was "an act of disrespect toward Turkey".
The major issue on the agenda for Olmert's visit had been the Turkish-led indirect talks between Israel and Syria. In response to the latest Israeli attack, Erdogan suspended the talks and departed for Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to search for a solution to the Gaza situation. He also talked to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Erdogan addressed the international community before his visit to Egypt, saying that "the Palestinian and Gazan people, our brothers, can only be saved from their isolation when these embargoes are lifted." Erdogan's response to Israel, his suspension of Syrian-Israeli negotiations and his Middle East shuttle diplomacy reflect a high level of Turkish involvement in the Palestinian question.
Thus, Turkey has initiated an intensive diplomatic campaign at both the regional and international level to put an end to the Gaza tragedy. Turkey's position is to include Hamas in the political process; Erdogan aims to persuade Hamas to return to a truce in exchange for Israel lifting the blockade of Gaza, and Turkish policy-makers have asked Hamas to declare a ceasefire and work for the political accommodation of different groups within Palestinian politics. Ahmet Davutoglu, the chief foreign policy aide to Turkey's prime minister, has met twice in Syria with Khaled Mishaal, the leader-in-exile of Hamas. Davutoglu's second visit came as a result of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's demand for help from Erdogan. In this sense, Turkey has already begun to mediate between Hamas and international actors while maintaining regular contacts with Fateh, the Palestinian Authority and Abbas.
Erdogan's active diplomacy, aimed at preventing further tragedy in Gaza, coincides with Turkey's assumption of a two-year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Erdogan welcomed the Arab League's call to lobby for a UN ceasefire resolution. Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Babacan attended the extraordinary meeting of the foreign ministers of the Organization of the Islamic Conference on January 3, 2009. The Turkish secretary-general of the OIC, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, called for immediate international action to put an end to Israeli aggression in Gaza. And before departing from Saudi Arabia, Erdogan added: "Hamas abided by the truce. But Israel failed to lift the embargoes. In Gaza, people seem to live in an open prison. In fact, all Palestine looks like an open prison. I am calling out to the whole world: why do you not display the same sensitivity you showed in Georgia, now in Gaza? The United Nations, the United States and the EU-member states mobilized for Georgia immediately. But now, no one takes action for Gaza."
Erdogan's critical response led to a phone conversation between President Abdullah Gul and his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres. Gul released a written statement after this conversation, expressing concern for the political and humanitarian situation in Gaza, underlining the need for supplying humanitarian aid and calling for an immediate ceasefire. The Turkish National Security Council expressed deep concern over the deaths of high numbers of Palestinians in the Israeli operation in Gaza. The NSC issued its own statement calling for an immediate end to military operations and the lifting of barriers so that humanitarian aid might be delivered to the Palestinian people in Gaza, and urged the consideration of diplomacy for a solution. The statement added that the Palestinians should reach a compromise among themselves as soon as possible. The NSC statement exemplifies the broad consensus on the Palestinian issue in Turkey.
Turkey has a two-stage plan for dealing with the Gaza situation. The first phase is to broker a ceasefire and provide supervision by international peacekeepers, including Arab and Turkish forces. The second is to achieve compromise between rival Palestinian groups to stabilize Palestinian politics and ensure a commitment to peace.
Erdogan is working to build bridges among the Arabs to create a common stance toward the Palestinian question. Arab intellectuals in major Arab dailies praised Turkish activities on Gaza's behalf and asked Erdogan to remind Arab leaders that the Palestinian cause is also an Arab issue.
Turkish diplomatic activities continued after Israel announced a unilateral ceasefire. Davutoglu pursued shuttle diplomacy between Damascus and Cairo while foreign ministry bureaucrats were talking to Israeli counterparts in Jerusalem. Turkish diplomats played a key role in persuading Hamas to announce a ceasefire.
Turkey adopted a severely critical attitude against the Israeli government's Gaza offensive and urged Israel to talk to Hamas to reach a solution. This critical attitude led to crisis in a panel discussion on Israel's Gaza offensive at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Erdogan, responding to Peres' defense of the Israeli attacks on Gaza, stated: "Maybe you [Peres] are feeling guilty and that is why you are so strong in your words. You killed people. I remember the children who died on beaches." He stormed out of the panel when the moderator tried to intervene during his response to Peres. Thousands of people extended a hero's welcome to Erdogan when he returned to Istanbul, waving Turkish and Palestinian flags and shouting "Turkey is with you."
Erdogan's attitude in Davos generated great sympathy in the Arab and Muslim world. Although his comments created some concern in Israel, high level officials on both sides recognized the value of good bilateral relations. Peres called Erdogan and said, "I am very sorry for what happened; friends can sometimes argue." Erdogan declared that he is against the Israeli government's policies and not the Israeli people or Jews elsewhere. He pointed out that he had "always declared that anti-Semitism is a crime against humanity."
Turkey has gained strategic depth in the Middle East and ever-increasing support among Arabs and Iranians. Turkey acquired this position without posing a war threat to Israel. It maintains good relations with Israel while registering progress in its relations with the enemies of Israel in the region. Indeed, Turkey has access to and dialogue with all countries and important actors in the area. Turkey's rising profile gives it an integral role in Middle East peace efforts. Erdogan will exploit his leverage over Hamas to transform that movement, reconcile Palestinian groups and prepare the groundwork for peace. Erdogan's attitude toward Israel will be determined to a considerable extent by Israel's response to his regional peace efforts.- Published 5/2/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Professor Bulent Aras chairs the Department of International Relations at Isik University, Istanbul.
Amman suspends its Hamas flirtation
Jordan has stalled its brief "tactical" flirtation with Hamas pending formulation of the US strategy toward the totality of Middle Eastern challenges, including the peace process, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Amman, wedged between two regional zones of instability and chaos, Iraq to the east and Palestine to the west, also wants regional factors to clear before it decides what to do next with Hamas.
The Israel-Hamas war exposed the limits of Jordan's ability to stay out of the two key positions that define the degree of polarization within Arab political dynamics. The pro-US Arab moderates, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt that like Jordan support Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and peace talks as a strategy, are aligned against Syria, Hamas and Hizballah, backed by Iran, which want Arabs to deter Israel.
For now, Amman has opted to freeze talks begun this summer with Hamas and its Jordanian allies, the Muslim Brotherhood. This brief thaw was engineered by Gen. Mohammad Dahabi, the head of Jordan's General Intelligence Department, who was removed on December 29, partly because of the regional fallout of the Gaza campaign.
The war showed the "Hamasization" of the Jordanian street, where Islamists organized hundreds of demonstrations urging the government to engage with Hamas and reverse the unpopular 1994 peace treaty with Israel. They also accused Mahmoud Abbas of collaborating with Israel.
"The recent openness toward Hamas proved too costly for Jordan, both externally and internally," said a government official. "Apart from angering our key peace allies, the Americans, the Israelis and President Abbas, the legitimate president of the PA, we gained little from talking to Hamas and from improving ties with the Jordanian Brotherhood".
The Islamists and other independent politicians, however, disagree. They say easing tensions with Hamas and the local Islamists allowed unprecedented harmony between official Jordan and popular sentiments during the Gaza onslaught. With a solid national front behind the leadership, Jordan had more cards to play while trying to navigate the hot waters of regional alignments.
Officials say the government has recently decided to strip the Muslim Brotherhood and its local political arm, the Islamic Action Front of tools it believes have helped the IAF regain popularity after elections in 2007 battered it into virtual parliamentary insignificance, a defeat the IAF blamed on massive fraud by the GID.
The Interior Ministry is revisiting Gen. Dahabi's decision to allow 20 Islamist clerics back to deliver sermons at Friday prayers, after some of them blasted Arab leaders who talk to Israel. The government is also considering ways to delay the imminent publication of the pro-Islamist daily "As Sabeel".
And contrary to promises made in July, the government will not return the financial and investment arm of the Brotherhood back to Islamist control after taking it over two years ago amid charges of corruption. Furthermore, the ministry has reinforced regulations that require political parties to seek prior official approval for any public gathering or demonstrations after freezing such guidelines during the Gaza war in a bid to ease public tension. It turned down a request by Islamists to organize a rally last Friday to celebrate "Hamas' victory in Gaza".
The short-lived Hamas-Jordan thaw came nine years after Jordan expelled leaders of the Palestinian resistance group, in a reflection of the young King Abdullah's shifting priorities in comparison to those of his father, the late King Hussein who died in 1999. For his father, the Hamas presence in Jordan was a card to play against Yasser Arafat in Palestinian politics, from which he never really withdrew. For King Abdullah, far more focused on Jordan, that presence was a political nuisance, an irritant blocking his quest for a closer military and political alliance with Washington, and a potential domestic security policy.
However, Gen. Dahabi convinced the king and the National Strategic Council that Jordan needed to open up to Hamas and to the Jordanian Islamists as part of a precautionary strategy to face the fallout of US President George Bush's failure to deliver on his promise to see through the creation of a two-state solution before he left the White House in early 2009. Dahabi also pushed for better ties with Syria and Qatar, two regional players and allies of Hamas, to bolster Jordan's position.
Insiders say the GID had little confidence that President Abbas' PA would not collapse in 2009, either leaving a power vacuum in the West Bank that might be challenged by Hamas or allowing Hamas simply to take the helm. In either case, the GID assumed that Hamas would prevent the influx of West Bank Palestinians to Jordan. And it would help ease the spillover of any security deterioration that would likely follow the PA's collapse.
Gen. Dahabi's calculation also reflected growing mistrust within the Jordanian establishment of Fateh, the dominant faction in the PLO, which Abbas heads. Dahabi was worried that Fateh elites might negotiate a peace deal at the expense of Jordanian interests to save their faltering legitimacy. Having Hamas and the Jordanian Islamists on the side of official Jordan would curb the agenda of influential politicians in the US and Israel who continue to see Jordan as an "alternative homeland" for Palestinians.
Insiders say Jordan kept the "talks with Hamas through the security channel" to reduce criticism by western and Arab allies that it was legitimizing Hamas. Jordan also did not want to be seen as going back on its stated desire to see Hamas accept conditions set by the Quartet in 2005.
King Abdullah is now warning in private and public meetings with local politicians and foreign leaders that the coming six months will be filled with regional challenges detrimental to Jordan. But he is willing to give new US President Barack Obama some time to flesh out his promise of an American policy initiative in the Middle East by seeking to engage Syria and Iran as "constructive regional actors" and renewing efforts to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Abdullah also needs to see how Obama will deal with the outcome of the February 10 elections in Israel, where the Right, which has tough conditions for peace talks, is expected to make a strong comeback. And Amman wants to see if the latest US-led efforts to enforce the Gaza ceasefire and encourage intra-Palestinian reconciliation will bear fruit.
"We will continue to push for a two-state solution to protect Jordan's security and stability while making sure that Palestinians in the West Bank are empowered with security and economic stability to stay on the ground and to bury the 'Jordan is Palestine' scenario," an official said.
"We will not allow any local or regional forces to push us to embrace the agenda of chaos and destruction that Iran and its allies are pursuing".- Published 5/2/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Rana Sabbagh-Gargour is a journalist and former chief editor of the Jordan Times.
Time for new Israeli thinking
The victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections in early 2006 and the forceful takeover of Gaza by Hamas in the summer of 2007 were watersheds in the history of the Palestinian national movement. They signified the end of an era that lasted for close to half a century in which the PLO enjoyed virtually monopolistic domination of the Palestinian movement. The defeats of the PLO and Fateh were part of a regional phenomenon--the decline of secular nationalism--that extended far beyond Palestinian politics and was plain for all to see throughout the Middle East.
The Hamas rise to prominence was thus no accident but part of a profound and lasting historical process. It was therefore not very realistic from the outset to assume that Palestinian society could be engineered by the pressure of external powers like Israel to correct its "error" of electing Hamas and coerced into reinstating the PLO and Fateh. The Israeli political and economic blockade, not surprisingly, failed to have the desired effect and Hamas not only weathered the storm but emerged from it relatively unscathed and probably even stronger than before.
But Hamas' staying power went to its head. Its indiscretion, coupled with Iranian pressure, brought Hamas to the point of provoking the recent Israeli onslaught on Gaza. The war has cost Hamas dearly--not so much in its standing versus the PLO and Fateh but in terms of its image in the eyes of the people of Gaza.
It is the people who have paid the price of the movement's rash and irresponsible behavior, while the leaders took to their underground bunkers in Gaza or their secure residences in Damascus. No amount of "victory" parades on the ruins of Gaza will change this grim reality, while the PLO leadership and significant components of the Arab media miss no opportunity to remind the Palestinian people of these uncomfortable facts. Hamas has simultaneously exposed itself to greater Egyptian, Israeli and international pressure to desist from its prolonged armed confrontation with Israel.
While the war in Gaza is cause for a Hamas "reality check", it would seem to be time for the Israelis to do the same. Hamas cannot wish Israel away, just as Israel cannot hope for Hamas to disappear. Moreover Israel itself, in launching the war in Gaza, did not seek to demolish Hamas. Weighing between the options of reoccupying Gaza or leaving it in a Somalia-like state of chaos, Israel deliberately chose to leave Hamas in place after seeking to coerce the organization into accepting that the cost of continued rockets aimed at Israel would be prohibitive. In other words, Israel seems to have come to the realistic conclusion that it is preferable after all to have a tamed, albeit hostile but efficient neighbor in charge rather than a more friendly but feeble and ineffective alternative.
If Hamas reasserts its control of the Gaza Strip and a lasting ceasefire is kept in place, two further steps will become part of the immediate agenda: the formation of a Palestinian government of national unity and the restarting of some form of Palestinian-Israeli negotiation. Considering the present level of enmity between Hamas and the PLO/Fateh, a government of national unity is anything but a foregone conclusion. At the same time, however, it is difficult to imagine meaningful progress in any negotiation with Israel that does not have at least the acquiescence of Hamas.
Israel ought to recognize the current realities for what they are and should not reject out of hand a Palestinian national unity government that includes Hamas. Such a government would enable Israel and Hamas to come down off their high horses and communicate indirectly without either having to concede on major issues of principle just for the sake of resuming meaningful Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. If Hamas' leaders were to refuse to take this route, the responsibility would be theirs and it is they who would have to face the consequences of their decisions and the opprobrium of more moderate Arab players within the Palestinian community and without.
It is time for Hamas to decide whether to take its cues from the radicals in Tehran or the moderates in Cairo. Needless to say, if Hamas proves incapable or unwilling to impose a stable ceasefire, progress on internal Palestinian unity or on the peace front will hardly be likely. In such circumstances, Israel and Hamas will sooner or later be back at war with each other and the Israelis and Hamas will have no need to face the question of whether or not to talk to each other outside of the battlefield--directly, indirectly or in any other fashion. But if the ceasefire holds, the time will have come for Israel and Hamas to rethink their respective policies on negotiations.- Published 5/2/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Professor Asher Susser is a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Time for a change of western policy
Three years after the European Union and the United States greeted Hamas' victory in the Palestinian elections with a decision to boycott the new government, the folly of that policy has never looked clearer.
It created an undeniable case that the West's claims of supporting democracy are riven with double standards, thereby alienating Arabs throughout the Middle East. Encouraging President Mahmoud Abbas to believe he has more credibility than he has, it hollowed out his sporadic talks with Israel and made him appear as a western tool rather than a truly representative leader. It raised justifiable suspicions that the true aim of western policy was to provoke regime change in the Palestinian territories by ousting Hamas in Gaza and giving a green light for more arrests of Hamas followers in the West Bank by Fateh security police.
The absurdity of ignoring Hamas politically has now been made worse by the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which Israel has provoked over the last three years, culminating in the recent, brutal attacks. Everything that needs to be done to produce peace and a tolerable standard of living for Palestinians in Gaza, whether it is a guaranteed supply of emergency aid as well as food, fuel and medical services, requires working with those who run Gaza. And that means Hamas.
Israel likes to portray Hamas as a terrorist organization, but Israel's assault on Gaza was based on the assumption that Hamas is a major political player. Armies and air forces do not target parliament buildings and ministries because of terrorism. They do so because they see the people in charge of those buildings as representatives of a political power that need to be contained or destroyed. Similarly, governments do not negotiate with people about ceasefires, as Egypt and Israel are doing directly or indirectly with Hamas, unless they recognize their interlocutors have the authority to maintain and police a ceasefire.
While Israeli hardliners, regrettably supported by most Israelis, have special reasons for not recognizing Hamas since they want to maintain the fiction they have "no partner for peace", other governments should not let themselves be tied to that policy. Within western foreign ministries and the EU that point is increasingly accepted by diplomats. The difficulty is that their political masters do not yet have the courage to say this openly and change the line that was set in 2006.
Several senior advisers to the Obama administration also recognize the need to engage with Hamas, but the new political team in Washington is not yet ready to take the plunge. During their contest in the Democratic primaries the future president and his future secretary of state, Hilary Clinton, were adamant that there could be "no talking to terrorists", even though they accept the principle of dialogue with "enemies". Unlike Bush, for example, they are in favor of engaging with Iran. There can be no logical reason to exclude Hamas from the principle that people who hold political power need to be engaged with, especially if you do not share their views.
The principle of Palestinian unity is at least accepted now by many western governments. They thereby knock away another prop from under their strategy of boycott. If Abbas is being urged to talk to Hamas, why should western governments not do likewise?
It has taken a long time for western governments to come round to the view that a Palestinian government of national unity is desirable as a platform for any serious discussion of a two-state solution. It will not be easy to achieve, given the record of bad blood between Fateh and Hamas and Abbas' insistence that he be in overall charge even though his mandate as PA president has just run out.
There are serious problems for Palestinians in reaching internal agreement about how to approach the negotiating table, even if there were willingness on the Israel side--a proposition that will be even more doubtful in a Netanyahu administration. Hamas still prefers the notion of a long-term "hudna" (which implicitly accepts the reality of Israel's existence) rather than the de facto recognition of Israel that comes with sitting down to face-to-face talks.
But a genuine government of national unity could find a division of labor that allowed for Fateh ministers to negotiate a two-state solution with Israel that would be put to the full government and the PLO for approval, or to a popular referendum, once a text was ready.
The benefits of US talks with Hamas would be immediate. At a stroke, they would distance Washington from Israeli policy, making it clear the US wanted to be a broker between the parties rather than a cheerleader for Israel. They would get the Europeans off their current hesitation and give them the courage to do what many of their own diplomats privately accept is necessary. This would free them to insist unequivocally that the crossings to Gaza must be opened urgently and permanently, under a system of international guarantees in which bans on arms transfers into the territory would be balanced by unfettered access for aid, fuel, goods and services.
The western boycott of Hamas has failed to weaken Hamas' authority in Gaza or its popularity in the West Bank. Israel's air and ground offensive has been equally counter-productive, though far bloodier. The time has come for a reversal.- Published 5/2/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Jonathan Steele is international affairs columnist for The Guardian newspaper
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