Many call for US to deal with Hamas
Steven Stanek, Foreign Correspondent
July 17. 2009
WASHINGTON // The Obama administration is committed to a prominent role in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but officials have offered little insight into whether they will endorse a tactical shift seen by an increasing number of analysts as necessary to a lasting peace: engaging with Hamas.
Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, this week echoed previous statements by top administration officials, including the president, when she said the US would not deal with Hamas unless the group recognises Israel, renounces violence and accepts prior agreements.
“At this stage, what we want to do is to get the negotiations going between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority,” said Mrs Clinton, responding to a question about whether “any conceivable situation” exists for Hamas to play a role in the peace process.
The US position on Hamas – that it is a terrorist group – has not changed since the Bush administration. But many hope that Barack Obama, who has shown a willingness to open a dialogue with other traditional US adversaries such as Iran and Syria, can change the dynamics of that relationship. So far, the US approach to the region has centred on propping up Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party in the West Bank, but that alone is seen by some as a partial solution to a conflict that, for better or worse, involves another key Palestinian player.
Once improbable, the notion that the United States could one day be sitting across the table from Hamas – even if it does not accept all of the US preconditions – has become widely accepted among academics and former US government officials.
“Within the foreign policy establishment, this is now a respectable position,” said Nathan Brown, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. Mr Brown was among several Middle East experts who participated in a panel discussion on engaging Hamas at the US Institute of Peace this week. “In some ways I would say there is kind of an emerging consensus that you can’t ignore Hamas,” he said.
The strongest endorsement of that position has come from Jimmy Carter, the former US president, who travelled to Gaza City in June to meet with Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s prime minister. Mr Carter’s outreach – as a private citizen, not as a representative of the US government – has been criticised by some officials in the United States and Israel, where he is viewed as partial towards Palestinians.
Thomas Pickering, a former undersecretary of state and US ambassador to the United Nations, also met with Hamas officials in June, according to a report in the Washington Post. The administration has said that Mr Pickering, now the co-chair of the International Crisis Group, was not representing the US government.
Other prominent figures such as James Baker, the secretary of state under George HW Bush, Brent Scowcroft, the senior Bush’s national security adviser, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to Mr Carter, have endorsed opening a dialogue with Hamas.
Those who advocate US-Hamas engagement were heartened by Mr Obama’s subtle overtures to Hamas during his speech in Cairo in early June.
“Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities,” Mr Obama said. “To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognise past agreements, and recognise Israel’s right to exist.”
Some have also been encouraged by signs that Hamas may be willing to deal with the international community. In June, Khaled Meshaal, the exiled Hamas leader, praised “Obama’s new language toward Hamas”.
“It is the first step in the right direction toward a dialogue without conditions, and we welcome this,” he said in a speech in Damascus.
But a formal opening to Hamas would also likely mean a new wave of criticism for a president who is already defending his efforts to engage Iran.
Many believe Hamas’ recent talk of a 10-year truce is really a ploy to gain time for rearmament. Others have chastised the group for not denouncing its founding charter, which includes harsh anti-Semitic language and calls for the obliteration of Israel through jihad. Future talks would also be complicated by the fact that Israel’s hawkish prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has little appetite for dealing with a sworn enemy.
David Makovsky, a Middle East expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that engaging Hamas would have a slew of negative consequences, including undermining the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
“Are we trying to basically help the people that maybe we should be hurting and hurting the people we should be helping?” asked Mr Makovsky, who also participated in the panel discussion on engaging Hamas.
Still, many others believe that Hamas’ legacy of providing basic social services, its opposition to corruption, and its landslide victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections leave mediators such as the United States with little choice but to bring them into the fold.
“At some stage the United States is going to have to engage Hamas because it is a large and influential political organisation and very much a player in the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” said Philip Wilcox, a US consul general in Jerusalem in the 1990s and the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.
“As long you do not accord Hamas any permanent legitimacy, I don’t see what you have to lose,” added Wayne White, a top Middle East analyst for the state department’s bureau of intelligence and research until 2005. “I don’t think that success, if we proceed with Hamas, is all that possible, but I know that without Hamas a meaningful result is impossible.”
Mr White, who also took part in the panel discussion, said he believes that the Obama administration is still “trying to sort out their options” regarding Hamas.
“The interesting thing that we do have in front of us is that they do have an open mind,” he said.