While this report is a sincere and professional attempt at discussing ways that President Obama can build upon his early actions in order to improve the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the authors reveal a major limitation to their paper within the Preface.
"This report is based on a series of briefings, meetings, and interviews conducted with a wide range of Palestinian and Israeli officials in June 2009, including on-the-record sessions with leaders such as Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, Kadima Party Leader and Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Major General Yoav Gallant of the Southern Command of the Israel Defense Forces, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Al-Fayyad, and Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The authors also met with a number of officials in off-the-record sessions, including several ministers in the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government, leaders in the Israel Defense Forces, independent analysts, and journalists in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Israel during the last two weeks of June. The meetings also included sessions with U.S.,
British, and other international officials and experts on the Middle East. Some of these meetings were part of a broader delegation that one report coauthor (Katulis) took part in organized by the Israel America Academic Exchange, a program in partnership with the Milken Institute and the Yitzhak Rabin Center.
There is no testimony from any persons associated with Hamas. While many people and governments believe that Hamas is a terrorist organization, it did win the majority of seats in the democratic 2006 Palestinian Parliamentary elections. Also, as a result of confrontations with Fatah in 2007, Hamas is the ruling entity for the 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Presently, there are a growing number of experts that understand Hamas' importance within the framework of attempts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At the end of March, a distinguished group of past U.S. government officials released "A Last Chance For A Two-State Israel-Palestine Agreement: A Bipartisan Statement On U.S. Middle East Peacemaking", for the U.S./Middle East Project. Among its suggestions is the idea that the President needs to take a new position regarding Hamas.
A legitimate, unified and empowered Palestinian side to negotiate with Israel is of importance if any agreement is to be reached and implemented. 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. Israel itself has acknowledged Hamas is simply too important and powerful to be ignored.
In brief, 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.
Finally, cease discouraging Palestinian national reconciliation and make clear that a government that agrees to a ceasefire with Israel, accepts President Mahmoud Abbas as the chief negotiator, and commits to abiding by the results of a national referendum on a future peace agreement would not be boycotted or sanctioned.
This past June, Professor Nathan Brown discussed the necessary inclusion of Hamas when he published his web commentary, "The Green Elephant In The Room: Dealing With The Hamas Party-State In Gaza", for the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace.
The Obama administration has thus learned from history. In the past, bold determination and frankness may indeed have avoided some of the dismal failures in U.S. diplomacy. But an excessive focus on history may only lead to repeating it: unless the administration devises a workable way to handle the fundamentally new reality of Hamas’s construction of a party-state in Gaza, it is difficult to see how the new president’s promise of support for Israeli–Palestinian peacemaking will be any less futile than his predecessors’.
Conclusion: A Way Forward?
The Obama administration is caught in a series of binds it has not yet acknowledged: its efforts will ultimately founder unless it finds a formula that deals with Hamas; the problems get harder rather than easier to solve by the day; and the most promising solution (a National Unity Government) is one that it has resisted precisely because it would likely force it to pursue Israeli–Palestinian peacemaking on a slower schedule and a less familiar set of circumstances than it would prefer.
The new leadership in Washington is refreshingly bold in its tactics but far more conventional in its strategies. Its new approach (especially on settlements) has already attracted attention in the region. But thus far its public policy toward Gaza remains unrealistic: demanding that Hamas change and treating the movement as if it does not exist until it does so. It is difficult to envision how the Obama administration’s initiatives can gain full traction until it develops more realistic ideas on Gaza.
On June 9th, Ghassan Khatib, coeditor of Bitterlemons and a former Palestinian Authority Minister of Planning, wrote "The Stick-And-Stick Approach Has Failed" that desribed the need for Hamas to be part of the political process in order to achieve a successful resolution. He believes it is not just the strength and influence of Hamas that makes it so important to the negotiations, but its recent politically pragmatic actions.
Over the past years, Hamas has sent several signals to the parties of the political process that it is in fact interested in participating. The first such signal came from the movement's founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who accepted the idea of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders to live without hostility alongside Israel. He proposed the idea of a long-term "hudna" to describe this state of affairs.
Then there was the 2007 Saudi-sponsored Mecca Agreement between Fateh and Hamas. That agreement saw the main Palestinian factions form a unity government under Hamas with a political platform that explicitly accepted and respected international legality and the relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions as well as the Arab initiative. It committed the unity government to a political process and a rejection of violence.
Probably the last in this line of signals was the June 25 speech by the head of Hamas' political bureau, Khalid Mishaal, who praised the Cairo speech of US President Barrack Obama, expressed a willingness to enter into a dialogue with the United States and reiterated Hamas' support for the idea of a two-state solution.
In that same edition of Bitterlemons, retired Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Brigadier General Shlomo Brom wrote "Try Including Hamas" in order to discuss his reasons why Hamas' inclusion is a necessity.
Hamas represents a significant segment of Palestinian society, which is basically conservative and religious. It is difficult to ascertain accurately how large this segment is. In the January 2006 elections, 44.45 percent voted for the Hamas list. That percentage was composed of hardcore supporters along with floating votes that change their voting patterns frequently. In the last PSR survey, Hamas was supported by 33 percent of those surveyed. It can be assumed that at least a third of the Palestinians generally support Hamas and its policies--a level of support that cannot be ignored.
This implies that, first, it is doubtful whether any Palestinian leader would be capable of concluding a permanent status agreement with Israel without Hamas. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, for example, could not conclude an agreement with Israeli PM Ehud Olmert last year because he was not capable of making the necessary concessions on sensitive issues, such as resolution of the refugee problem, knowing that a formidable political adversary would use his concessions against him. Concessions can be made only from a position of political strength.
Second, even if an agreement is concluded, Hamas can play the spoiler and prevent implementation. This argument became particularly valid after the Hamas military takeover of Gaza in 2007. Thus, no Israel-PLO agreement can be implemented in Gaza, and Hamas can use its control to initiate military escalation and prevent implementation even in the West Bank. There is also grave concern in Israel that any withdrawal from the West Bank would lead sooner or later to a Hamas takeover there, at which point the agreement would be worthless.
Third, with this level of support Hamas is not going to disappear soon. The current paradigm adopted by the government of Israel after the 2006 Hamas electoral victory, combining economic pressure on Gaza with support for the Abbas government in the West Bank, is failing. The level of support for Hamas has decreased only in a limited way; actually, support for Hamas increased again in the West Bank after the recent fighting in Gaza. Anyway, these fluctuations in political support for Hamas have no real effect on the robustness of its control over Gaza.
On June 15th, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter met with the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Israeli Knesset. On June 16th, he gave the commencement address for Gazan Palestinian students at an UNRWA Human Rights Program graduation ceremony. During both presentations, Mr. Carter discussed his political beliefs regarding Hamas based on his many conversations with its leadership in Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza.
June 15th Knesset Meeting
"And so I still believe that the best approach to future substantive peace talks, with Israel on one side and Palestinians on the other side, is to negotiate with a unity government. The Hamas leaders have always told me that they accept completely Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas, to be their spokesperson, since he's the head of the PLO. And as you know the PLO is the only organization that Israel recognized officially as representing the Palestinians, not the Palestinian Authority. And Hamas has also always announced publicly and permitted me to announce that they would accept any agreement that is reached between Abu Mazen and your prime minister provided it's submitted to the Palestinians in a referendum and is approved. So I think that the involvement of Hamas is necessary, and I know that many members of Hamas are not averse to accepting Israel as a neighbor in a future peace."
June 16th UNRWA Graduation Speech
"In his speech in Cairo, President Obama said that Hamas has support among Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities. To play a full role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, accept existing peace agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist.
I have urged Hamas leaders to accept these conditions, and they have made statements and taken actions that suggest they are ready to join the peace process and move toward the creation of an independent and just Palestinian state.
Khaled Mashaal has assured me that Hamas will accept a final status agreement negotiated by the Palestinian Authority and Israel if the Palestinian people approve it in a referendum. Hamas has offered a reciprocal ceasefire with Israel throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Unfortunately, neither the Israeli leaders nor Hamas accept the terms of the Oslo Agreement of 1993, but the Arab Peace Initiative is being considered now by all sides.
Veteran global affairs journalist Helena Cobban (Just World News) describes her views on Hamas' participation in the peace process in the June 24th Christian Science Monitor article "My Talk With Hamas About Peace With Israel. Her ideas are based on her decades of investigative Middle East reporting, and her June 4th interview with Hamas' head Khaled Meshaal.
~ In 2006 it (Hamas) won parliamentary elections held in the West Bank and Gaza. More recently it survived the military onslaught Israel launched against Gaza last December – and in the wake of that war, Hamas's popularity among Palestinians increased.
Meanwhile, Washington's ongoing campaign to strengthen the rival Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has backfired badly. Rather than strengthening Fatah, the aid that Washington and its allies have sent to Mr. Abbas has further fueled the nepotism and corruption within Fatah and hastened its internal decline.
~ Meshaal is a sober, intelligent man who talks in a way that seems much more "political," and politically savvy, than religious. He stressed that Hamas wanted to be "part of the solution, not part of the problem."
He expressed a strong desire for Hamas to heal its present deep rift with Fatah. He also reaffirmed Hamas's support for a 2006 proposal whereby Abbas or other non-Hamas negotiators would conduct the actual peace negotiations with Israel. Any resulting peace agreement would then be submitted to a Palestinian-wide referendum, and Hamas would abide by its results, he said.
If Hamas and Fatah can rebuild enough trust to authorize a unified Palestinian team to start negotiating, this proposal could allow peace talks to proceed without finding a complete prior answer to the West's "dealing with Hamas" problem.
~ If Hamas is folded into the peacemaking, it would emerge – like South Africa's African National Congress, or Northern Ireland's Sinn Fein – as a very different organization afterward.
In addition, if Obama's peace diplomacy works – with Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs – then the whole Arab-Israeli arena would become very different from what we see today. Israel and its neighbors could finally turn their attentions away from preparing and waging war and rebuild their own societies in a climate of security and hope.
On July 19th, Howard Schneider and Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post documented that a late June meeting took place between Thomas Pickering and two Hamas officials in Switzerland. Mr. Pickering is a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel under President Reagan, Ambassador to the U.N. under President George H.W. Bush, and Undersecretary of State under President Clinton. Currently, he is a co-chair of the International Crisis Group, a Senior Adviser to the U.S./Middle East Project, and a signatory of the "Bipartisan Statement On U.S. Middle East Peacemaking" that was delivered to President Obama this past March.
Still, the Pickering meeting took place in the context of Obama administration efforts to reach out to forces in the Middle East that were shunned under Bush. It was held in between President Obama's June 4 speech in Cairo, in which he acknowledged popular support for Hamas among Palestinians, and a June 25 speech by Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, in which Meshal said the armed movement was ready to deal with the international community in order to reach an agreement with Israel. Pickering, co-chair of the nonprofit International Crisis Group, would not comment.
In the same article, IDF Brigadier General Brom states his thoughts on Mr. Meshaal's June 25th speech and its possibility to allow for a thawing of the relationship betwen Hamas and the West.
Meshal's speech, delivered from Damascus, the Syrian capital, was considered an overture to Obama. "The purpose of the speech was to convince the West that Hamas is a partner for dialogue," retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom, director of the Israeli-Palestinian Relations Program at Tel Aviv University, wrote in a recent paper. "The speech will make it easier for elements in Western Europe and within Obama's administration that support dialogue with Hamas to advance their position."
Even Shin Bet Security Chief Yuval Diskin has noted changes in Hamas' recent rhetorical changes. The July 20th Haaretz article "PM Rebukes Shin Bet Chief: Stay Out Of Peace Process" by Barak Ravid desribes Mr. Diskin's presentation at Prime Minister Netanyahu's most recent weekly cabinet meeting.
"Public statements by leaders attest to efforts by Hamas to appear interested in ending the conflict with Israel, based on the model of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders in exchange for a long-term hudnah [cease-fire]," Diskin said before Netanyahu silenced him. "This doesn't mean they have abandoned ideological principles. Hamas is turning to the diplomatic sphere to challenge exclusive control by Abu Mazen," Diskin said, refering to PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
There are many governments who have failed in their attempts to support the destruction of Hamas with weapons and an economic blockade. These same groups have also tried to significantly weaken Hamas by providing economic and security benefits to West Bank Palestinians through the rival Fatah party. Whether or not these gains are actually successful, Hamas has continued to survive because West Bank Palestinians understand that the benefits have not led to, and do not appear to lead to, the end of the Israeli Occupation.
The statements of these Palestinian, Israeli, and American citizens reveal that there are important and powerful people who are trying to realistically and positively change the diplomatic conversation. They understand that Hamas is a permanent fixture in Palestinian politics and Palestinian society. As such, there is no way to obtain a long term resolution to this horrendous conflict without their inclusion. Hopefully, President Obama will have the strength to listen to these growing voices, and hopefully, we will have the courage to support him.