Talking about talking to Hamas
Should Israel and/or its allies talk to men like these, the Palestinian Islamists of Hamas, who run the Gaza Strip?
That’s a question that has been revived this week following the end of Israel’s 22-day war in Gaza, which left Hamas rule apparently intact and 1.5 million people in desperate need, and the arrival in the White House of President Barack Obama, who has indicated he might be willing to talk to people his predecessor George W. Bush had shunned.
For now, it looks like talking about talking may be as far as it goes, as we examined in a story earlier in the week. Israel is conducting discussions through Egyptian mediators on prolonging its ceasefire, but is not interested in talking to a movement which rejects the agreements made by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his PLO to accept Israel’s right to exist. Nor are Hamas leaders willing to give Israel the implicit recognition that opening formal negotiations would give – though they do not rule out some contact.
Obama, his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and new Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who notably negotiated an end to IRA violence in Northern Ireland, have given no sign they are about to break radically with the Bush administration’s policies in the region for now, as my colleague Jonathan Wright examined today. Obama notably made his first call to regional leaders on Wednesday to Abbas, a sign many saw of a continued determination to support the secular leader in the West Bank against the movement which defeated his Fatah party in a 2006 parliamentary election and seized full control in Gaza the following year. Obama on Thursday repeated three long-standing conditions, agreed upon by the Quartet of mediating powers, for the boycott of Hamas to end.
And yet, and yet. There is talk about talks. This is notably in Europe, where governments who rallied behind Israel after it ceased fire in Gaza on Jan. 18 also face disquiet among their electorates about the fate of Gazans blockaded into their tiny enclave and denied access to basic reconstruction supplies, like cement and steel piping, after a war that killed some 1,300 and left tens of thousands homeless. Israel fears such material will be used by Hamas to rearm, including building the rockets with which it has peppered southern Israel for years. But the embargo is taking a toll on ordinary people too. As regional political analyst Mouin Rabbani put it to me: “”The Europeans and other donors, now have a problem. Are you going to say ‘Let them eat cake?'”
It is perhaps significant that, in a speech declaring “victory” in Gaza, Hamas’s exile leader Khaled Meshaal appeared specifically to address Europeans in urging talks: “I tell European nations,” he said in Damascus, “It is time for you to deal with Hamas.” Hamas officials made clear to Reuters that the offer of talks was one specifically to international powers, not to Israel.
To look in more detail at the arguments of those who say it is time to talk to Hamas, one might listen to a speech in the British parliament last week by Gerald Kaufman, a former minister and prominent Jewish supporter of Israel who has been highly critical of recent Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. Likening the offensive in Gaza to Nazi atrocities, he said: “”Hamas is a deeply nasty organisation, but it was democratically elected and it is the only game in town. The boycotting of Hamas … has been a culpable error … You make peace by talking to your enemies.”
French analyst Olivier Roy wrote in the Saudi Gazette this week that it is “time to consider that option” of talking to Hamas. He criticised the Bush administration for what he said was an approach that did not distinguish between enemies like al Qaeda, which have irreconcilable global ambitions, and those like Hamas, which he described as “nothing else than the traditional Palestinian nationalism” – a movement with goals that might be susceptible to negotiation. “The concept of a “war on terror” has thwarted any political approach to the conflicts in favor of an elusive military victory,” Roy wrote.
Another Frenchman taking a close interest in the issue is Yves Aubin de la Messuziere, a retired senior diplomat who twice visited Hamas leaders in Gaza last year. He and the French government have been keen to stress these were private, “research” visits. But the former ambassador has been speaking out strongly for what he sees as an inevitable need to negotiate with Hamas, despite Israel’s distaste for a group it sees as a proxy of its foes in Iran and the perpetrator of dozens of suicide bombings in Israeli cities in the early part of this decade. He developed the theme in some detail in a Web chat hosted by Le Monde newspaper this month and in an interview with Nouvel Observateur magazine , which provides its own English translation. The diplomat argues that Hamas’s political leadership is capable of negotiations. “Dialogue … will happen, because Hamas is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said. “If Obama truly wants to be the American president who resolved this conflict, there will have to be a dialogue with Hamas.”
For a rundown on the opposite view, and one generally shared by the Israeli leaders contesting a general election in just over two weeks, take a look at a blog by former Bush aide David Frum for the National Post. Frum notes the way talk about talks with Hamas is bubbling away behind the scenes, especially in the chancelleries of Europe. And that worries him: “Starting talks with a group that has not first disavowed violence is an invitation to even more violence,” he said, citing among examples the behaviour of the IRA during a peace process that involved, notably, George Mitchell. “Advocates of talks with terrorists often present themselves as pragmatists,” said Frum. “Not so. They are guided by unstated biases and pure wishful thinking.”
The calculations down the decades by governments around the world with armed enemies that oppose them have always been complex and fraught with moral arguments, between the hope that “jaw-jaw is better than war-war” and fear of appeasement and “rewarding terrorism”. This is the fine art of diplomacy mostly conducted behind closed doors. What is, perhaps, more striking then, amid all this cautious and rather technical talk of talking about talks, is some passionate talking from a relatively few Israelis, and Palestinians, of a more profound need to talk, without conditions, simply to try to find some common ground between two peoples who seem locked in endless struggle. While Gaza’s rubble was still smouldering, one of Israel’s most celebrated writers, David Grossman, seized the front-page of the left-leaning daily newspaper Haaretz to pen an impassioned entreaty for dialogue.
“We must speak to the Palestinians … We must speak also to those who do not recognise our right to exist here,” wrote Grossman, author of See under: Love and a veteran peace campaigner who lost a soldier son in Israel’s last war, in Lebanon in 2006. “Instead of ignoring Hamas … we would do better to take advantage of the new reality that has been created by beginning a dialogue with them immediately.”
“We must speak, even if dialogue seems hopeless from the start,” he wrote. “We must speak out of understanding, born as we look out at the horrible devastation, as we grasp that the harm we are capable of inflicting on each other … is so enormous and so destructive and so utterly senseless, that if we surrender to it and accept its logic, it will end up destroying us all.”