Israel’s new government is a headache the Obama Administration doesn’t
need. Compared with Tzipi Livni, the woman he narrowly beat out, and even
Ehud Olmert, the man he succeeds, incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahuis cool toward a Palestinian state. And although it includes the moderate
Labor Party, Netanyahu’s ruling coalition teems with right-wing figures like
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose call for a loyalty oath directed
at Israel’s Arab citizens dismays even Israel’s staunchest friends.
But if Israel’s new government is making the Obama team anxious, it’s
nothing compared with the government that could be coming together next door
in the Palestinian territories where President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah
party may join hands with the Islamist militants of Hamas. That’s a problem,
since the U.S. won’t have anything to do with Hamas or any government in
which it takes part. A few months ago, when Hamas was at odds with Abbas and
at war with Israel, that was an easy position to take. But now it’s becoming
harder. And sooner or later, the U.S. may have to come to the same painful
realization it has arrived at in Iraq and Afghanistan: the only thing worse
than talking to terrorists is not talking to them.
In a way, Hamas is the final frontier. After 9/11, the Bush Administration
vowed it would not negotiate with terrorists not just al-Qaeda but national
terrorist movements and the regimes that sponsored them. More than seven
years later, that hard line has melted. The Bush Administration negotiated
with North Korea despite listing it as a state sponsor of terrorism. In
Iraq, it not only talked to Baathists who had been killing other Iraqis and
our troops, it paid and armed them. And the Obama Administration has gone
further. It has advertised its willingness to negotiate with the governments
in Damascus and Tehran, both terrorism sponsors, according to the State
Department. It is also mulling overtures to the Taliban, which is killing
U.S. troops and ordinary Afghans nearly every day. The U.S. still doesn’t
talk to Hizballah, but we do talk to the Lebanese government, in which
Hizballah plays a prominent role.
We’ve softened our stance for two basic reasons. First, our policy of
shooting and stonewalling wasn’t succeeding in either eradicating terrorist
movements and their patrons or moderating them. Second, U.S. policymakers
decided that movements like the Baathists and the Taliban and regimes like
those in Syria, Iran and North Korea are fundamentally different from
al-Qaeda. They are different because their goals are national or regional,
not global. The Baathists want to run Iraq again; the Taliban wants to
reclaim power in Afghanistan; the Iranians want to perpetuate their
dictatorship and wield influence across the Middle East. Those goals may be
unacceptable, but we’ve decided that they bear enough relationship to
reality to be worth talking about.
The argument for talking to a government that includes Hamas is that Hamas
is more like the Taliban and the Baathists than like al-Qaeda. First, Hamas
is deeply rooted in Palestinian society and thus very difficult to uproot by
force. It operates a vast social-welfare network and according to many polls
is now the most popular Palestinian political party. For 22 days beginning
last December, Israel pummeled its institutions in Gaza, but the war hasn’t
turned Palestinians against the group. To the contrary, it is more
entrenched than ever in Gaza and on the verge of seizing power in
Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon as well.
So far, the U.S. and Israel’s strategy has been to keep Hamas-ruled Gaza
poor while improving life in the West Bank, which is governed by Fatah and
Abbas, in the hope that Palestinians seeing the contrast will desert Hamas,
thus forcing it to capitulate to our demands. But the strategy has failed
for three big reasons. One is Fatah, which is still widely considered
incompetent and corrupt. Another is Israel, which hasn’t given Abbas what
politically he most needs: a halt to or reversal of West Bank settlement
growth. The final reason is Hamas itself, which has an incentive to foil our
plans. All the organization has to do is what it did late last year: lob
enough missiles into southern Israel to provoke an Israeli response. When
that happens, the sight of Abbas standing idly by while Palestinians die
pretty much wrecks his credibility.
So there’s a negative reason for the U.S. and Israel to talk to a government
that includes Hamas, the same negative reason the U.S. talked to the
Baathists and seems set to talk to the Taliban: not talking isn’t working
out very well. But that alone doesn’t justify a change in policy. Critics
point out that dealing with Hamas would break precedent, since the U.S.
never publicly dealt with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization
until it accepted Israel and renounced violence. They say Hamas must be
forced to choose between the ballot and the bullet. They’re right it must.
But what matters is getting it to choose, not whether Hamas chooses before
we talk to it or after. The Irish Republican Army only publicly renounced
armed struggle in 2005, a full seven years after the 1998 Good Friday
Agreement, which brought its civilian wing into the political process. And
even in the case of the PLO, the U.S. and Israel negotiated secretly with
Arafat for years before he finally met our demands.
See pictures of Fatah-Hamas conflict.