Bring Hamas to the Table

The Middle East peace talks look and sound like every other failed effort. Time to bring in Hamas from the cold, argues Israeli writer Roi Ben-Yehuda.

09.04.10 6:56 PM ET

A few weeks ago, at a dinner with Yuli Tamir, Israel’s former minister of education and one of the founding members of Peace Now, I asked whether negotiations without Hamas can succeed. “Well, if negotiations do succeed—and I am highly skeptical they will—Hamas will feel tremendous pressure to make the necessary compromises, and join in the negotiations,” said Tamir. “They are a rational actor and, given their political position today, I don’t think they want to be seen as an absolute spoiler, should the negotiations produce real dividends.”

Tamir’s comment left me wondering: If we accept the view of Hamas as a serious and rational actor responsive to the needs of its people, why didn’t the Obama team find a creative way to include Hamas in the negotiations? After all, part of the reason for the deep skepticism surrounding the negotiations is that this round of talks looks and sounds like every other failed effort at peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, as Albert Einstein once quipped, then we may indeed be flirting with madness. The inclusion of Hamas would at least add some novelty to the political spectacle, a new element to that old equation.

Negotiations, of course, were re-launched this week. But when asked earlier about Hamas’ role in the peace process, former Senator George Mitchell provided and emphatic one-word answer: “None.”

However, on Tuesday, Mitchell explained that, while he does not expect Hamas to participate in this round of negotiations, he would “welcome the full participation by Hamas, and all relevant parties once they comply with the basic requirements of democracy and nonviolence that are, of course, a prerequisite to engage in these serious types of discussions.”

Why didn’t the Obama team find a creative way to include Hamas in the negotiations?

In Israel, talking with Hamas is still somewhat taboo even if, in recent years, senior Israeli officials and intellectual figures seem to have warmed to the idea. “Under the current circumstances—with the destructive gamesmanship of the Palestinian Authority and the stagnation in Gaza—the time has surely come to explore a new relationship with Hamas,” wrote Efraim Halevy, the former National Security Adviser and head of the Mossad, in The New Republic in March. “Attempts to penalize the group with exclusion have failed; perhaps, the time has come for a strategy that co-opts Hamas.”

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Hamas has previously signaled it might be a participant in the peace process. In an interview with Charlie Rose this May, Khaled Meshaal, head of the political bureau of Hamas, said that “if Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders, that will be the end of the Palestinian resistance.” When asked to clarify, the Damascus-based Meshaal said that if Israel withdraws from the West Bank, reestablishing pre-1967 borders, paving the way for East Jerusalem to become the capital of a sovereign Palestinian state with the right of return for refugees, “then we—the Palestinian state—will decide the future of the relationship with Israel. And we will respect the decision that will reflect the viewpoint of the majority of the Palestinian people both inside and outside Palestine.”

There are a number of significant points to Meshaal’s position. First, it’s in accord with the two-state vision of many within the international community. (The right of return is, of course, the sticking point, but a right of return to a Palestinian state with significant reparation could help resolve that.) Second, his position is wholly secular. Not a word is said about religious principles such as the idea that Palestine is a sacred trust and will remain a Muslim land till the day of resurrection. Third, Hamas is willing to subject the future makeup of the Palestinian state to the will of the Palestinian people—not the will of Allah.

This democratic position allows Hamas, in theory, to accept positions it has previously argued against, calling to mind the political play by Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin who, in 1979, allowed the Knesset to make the decision to dismantle certain Jewish settlements in the Sinai, a decision he had vowed never to make.

None of Hamas’ stated positions, as represented by Meshaal, would need to be unconditionally and blindly accepted by Israel. Nor should they be. However, we need to recognize that Hamas is not an ideological monolith. There is a diversity of voices within Hamas, some more supple than others. The critical question that we need to ask is how best to encourage the more practical and flexible-minded within the organization?

This week, Hamas, took responsibility for two terror attacks in the West Bank– one of which claimed the life of four settlers, including a pregnant woman. Speaking to AP Television News, senior Hamas official and hardliner Mahmoud Zahar explained, “We have to concentrate on the West Bank in order to achieve (its) liberation." The deliberate targeting of settlers in the West Bank is keeping with Hamas’ new-found focus on the 1967 occupation, but its also done with the hopes that armed activities confined to the West Bank are less likely to enrage the Israeli public and thereby provoke a strong military response. Most importantly, such actions send a powerful message to the peace camp: unless you include us, your efforts at coexistence will be disrupted.

It remains to be seen whether Palestinian security forces can establish full security in the West Bank. Even if they can, Hamas clearly remains a force to be reckoned with, and it’s difficult to imagine that a peace accord can successfully be implemented without its support. While violent, the organization has shown itself to be pragmatic when doing so was advantageous, and so perhaps we need to give Hamas more reasons to abandon its role as an absolute spoiler. The future of the region may depend on it.

Roi Ben-Yehuda is an Israeli writer based in the U.S. His work has been featured in Haaretz, Al Jazeera and France 24. He is currently a graduate student at Columbia University, as well as a doctoral student at the Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.