Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Dealing with Hamas

One of the many benefits of blogging is the constant reminder to test assumptions. For instance, in an Op-Ed in today’s Post, two supposed veteran Mid-East observers – laying the groundwork for a piece excoriating the Administration’s reaction to the Hamas takeover in Gaza state the following:

“Having embraced one illusion -- that it could help isolate and defeat Hamas -- the Bush administration is dangerously close to embracing another: Gaza is dead, long live the West Bank….

“The theory is a few years late and several steps removed from reality. If the United States wanted to help President Mahmoud Abbas, the time to do so was in 2005, when he won office in a landslide, emerged as the Palestinians' uncontested leader and was in a position to sell difficult compromises to his people.”
'West Bank First': It Won't Work

The authors are Robert Malley, director of the Middle East program at International Crisis Group and Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Mr. Malley was a special assistant to President Clinton in this arena through the end and Mr. Miller has worked with various Secretary of States dealing with Israeli-Arab negotiations. (Ed. Note: Two years ago, the latter issued a kind-of mea culpa based on his perception that we had become Israel’s lawyer - although to be fair, he has rejected the premise of Walt & Mearsheimer’s Israel lobby).

So no doubt they spend more time studying that region than I do but I just don’t remember Abbas’ election as representing such an obvious opportunity.

If you’ll recall, that landslide wasn’t quite as meaningful as they imply because Hamas – that other group – wasn’t an active participant in that January 9, 2005 election. Hamas calls on supporters to boycott Palestinian presidential elections

…but that doesn’t mean Hamas wasn’t participating in any elections: less than three weeks later: Hamas Dominates Local Vote in Gaza

Hamas, known officially as the Islamic Resistance Movement, won 76 of the 118 total seats, dealing a staggering blow to the Fatah movement, which was founded by Yasser Arafat and has been the most powerful Palestinian party for more than 30 years.”

So I just don’t buy that Hamas' big electoral victory a year later was because of our failure to timely help President Abbas – the Palestinians embrace of a terrorist-based government is too much a recurring story.

This not the first time these two gentlemen have opined on this subject. A little more than a year ago, they thought:

“Second, U.S. efforts to starve the Palestinian government of funds may be a principled position, but they are certainly not a workable policy. The result would be humanitarian catastrophe, political chaos and domestic mayhem among Palestinians -- as well as resumption of full-scale violence.” For Israel and Hamas, a Case for Accommodation

At first glance, you might think they were dead-on…except, of course, that political chaos, domestic mayhem and full-scale violence pretty much describe day-to-day life with Hamas. No outside influence required. Mr. Miler had even sort of acknowledged this a month earlier:

“Hamas, for its part, is not likely to change its charter or recognize Israel. Both sides will begin to prepare for the possibility of a third intifada.” The morning after the elections

Like all good wonks, Messrs. Malley and Miller have the answer:

“As the United States and others seek to empower [Abbas], they should push for a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire in Gaza and the West Bank, which will require dealing -- indirectly at least -- with elements of Hamas. They should resist the temptation to isolate Gaza and should tend to its population's needs. And should a national unity government be established, this time they should welcome the outcome and take steps to shore it up. Only then will efforts to broker credible political negotiations between Abbas and his Israeli counterpart on a two-state solution have a chance to succeed.”

Now only in the Mid-East can someone with a resume like Abbas’ come across as a moderate. But he is a veritable Gandhi when compared to the Hamas leadership. The waning months of the Clinton administration were notably marked by Israel and our’s sincere engagement with a Palestinian national unity government then in the guise of Yasser Arafat. As a participant, Mr. Miller knows better than most how that turned out.

The authors incessant belief in ongoing engagement strikes me as clichéd and so reflective of the Washington mindset. President Bush was correctly steadfast in his refusal to continue to deal with Arafat and, if anything, Hamas today is even more intransigent than Arafat. There will be no long-term shared “national unity government” as long as Fatah and Hamas are the ones to do the sharing.

And from my vantage point, there is simply no working with Hamas as currently constructed, meaning the principled stand of no engagement and no support should be our policy. And I think it’s a workable one – even if it doesn’t mean work for the likes of Robert Malley and Aaron Miller.

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