Freezing Out Hamas No Longer Viable, Say Policy Heavyweights

A new report from a New York-based think tank and delivered to U.S. President Barack Obama by a signatory who is also a current adviser recommends that Washington forcefully reinsert itself into the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, calling for "a more pragmatic approach to Hamas."

Even by its title, the report from the U.S./Middle East Project (USMEP) alludes to the urgency of U.S. involvement: "A Last Chance for a Two-State Israel-Palestine Agreement."

"[T]he next six to 12 months may well represent the last chance for a fair, viable and lasting solution," said the paper. "[I]t is essential that the incoming administration make Arab-Israeli peace a high national security priority from the beginning."

Taking on the frank realism of several of the group’s signatories, the statement lays out specific policy recommendations, debunks arguments against robust engagement, and offers calculations of the benefits of action – including allowing for the engagement of the Islamic rejectionist group Hamas by international actors in the peace process.

Hamas currently rules the Gaza Strip despite the beating the group took during a three-week war launched by Israel during the winter.

In his Mar. 26 Op-Ed for the website of the New York Times, columnist Roger Cohen calls the report’s signatories a group of "former senior officials whose counsel [Obama] respects" and says that he believes their views to be largely in line with the thinking of National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones and the administration’s Middle East envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell. He adds that Obama is expected to eventually meet with the group.

Former Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) fellow, former longtime president of the American Jewish Congress, and University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies professor Henry Siegman convened the group under the auspices of USMEP, where he is president.

Other signatories, experts and elder statespersons of U.S. foreign policy include USMEP chairman Gen. Brent Scowcroft; former Pres. Jimmy Carter National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski; former members of Congress Chuck Hagel, Lee Hamilton, and Nancy Kassebaum-Baker; Amb. Thomas Pickering; and, notably, former Federal Reserve chairman and current Obama administration Economic Advisory Group chair Paul Volcker.

The authors acknowledge what has become obvious to many in the U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian pro-peace crowd: that Hamas may be the last, best hope for saving the two-state solution.

The paper, while not calling for direct U.S. engagement with Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the State Department, says that "Hamas is simply too powerful and too important to be ignored."

"A legitimate, unified and empowered Palestinian side to negotiate with Israel is of importance if any agreement is to be reached and implemented," says the report. "Direct U.S. engagement with Hamas may not now be practical, but shutting out the movement and isolating Gaza has only made it stronger and Fatah weaker."

Fatah rules the West Bank and has control of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Many international actors consider PA president Mahmoud Abbas to be a palatable negotiator for Palestinians, but his Fatah faction is widely considered corrupt and ineffectual by Palestinians.

After winning elections in 2006, Hamas was briefly in a national unity government with Fatah, which much of the international community opposed with vigor – especially the U.S., which boycotted the government, withdrew aid, and reportedly aided Fatah in preparations for a coup d’etat.

In a preemptive counter-coup Hamas violently seized control of Gaza, effectively cleaving the Palestinian territories and the PA.

While the USMEP report says recognition of Israel should not be a condition for taking part in the process – as it currently is in the conditions laid down by the international "Quartet" of the United Nations, European Union, United States and Russia – it does list, among others, a recognition of Abbas as chief negotiator as prerequisite for inclusion.

The statement says the Obama administration should "cease discouraging Palestinian national reconciliation" and "shift the U.S. objective from ousting Hamas to modifying its behavior, offer it inducements that will enable its more moderate elements to prevail, and cease discouraging third parties from engaging with Hamas in ways that might help clarify the movement’s views and test its behavior."

In his column, Cohen wrote that Siegman had spoken to Damascus-based Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal. Cohen said that Meshaal had "put in writing" that Hamas would be willing to be in a unity government that made a referendum-approved peace agreement with Israel.

"De facto, rather than de jure, recognition can be a basis for a constructive relationship," wrote Cohen, stating flatly that Israel understood that arrangement’s benefits.

Hamas is seen as having ideological splits, which can be exploited. In addition to Meshaal, much of Hamas’s Gaza-based leadership has also spoken of at least a long-term ceasefire with Israel, particularly after the devastating recent war in the tiny, impoverished Strip.

The USMEP paper warns of the pitfalls of the "absenteeism" that dominated most of Pres. George W. Bush’s engagement with the Israeli-Arab peace process. The signatories go so far as to endorsing a NATO-led but internationally supplemented security force that could guarantee Israel’s safety.

"The one constant in all of this has been Israel’s insistence that it will not consent to two-state arrangements unless it concludes that Israel’s security will not be substantially harmed by removing the IDF from the West Bank," says the report. "The dilemma, however, is that West Bank security measures being implemented now by the IDF tend to produce conditions on the ground that prevent the formation of a coherent Palestinian polity with professional, capable security forces willing and able to cooperate and coordinate with Israeli forces."

The idea of an international security forces has gotten more mainstream attention of late, featuring prominently in the chapter on the Israeli-Arab conflict of a volume released by the influential Brookings Institution and CFR as a policy guide for the then-incoming Pres. Obama.

The report says that action is especially crucial because, while their power and abilities are not directly predicated on it – nor their fates tied to it – the continuing occupation allows U.S. adversaries like al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and the Islamic Republic of Iran to score points within Arab populations. In Iran’s case, the country gains influence. In al-Qaeda’s, the terror group benefits by using occupation as a recruiting tool.

"A comprehensive Arab-Israel peace will not erase al-Qaeda," says the report. "Yet it would help drain the swamp in which the disease thrives and mutates."

"Israeli treaties with Palestine, Syria and Lebanon would bring the entire Arab League into the peace camp in line with the Arab Peace Initiative. An Iran still hostile to the U.S. and Israel would find the strategic advantages it has recently gained in the Arab world all but eliminated."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib writes for Inter Press Service.