Today's date:
Spring 2009

Bring Hamas Into the Political Process

Efraim Halevy, a former head of the Israeli Mossad and ambassador to the European Union, now heads the Shasha Center for Strategic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His memoirs are entitled Man in the Shadows.

Jerusalem—It is now clear that Israel delivered a withering and sustained blow to Hamas during its three-week campaign that ended Jan. 17, successfully targeting its weapons stores, training facilities and command posts. Several hundred of Hamas' fighting force were killed and many others injured. Even Khaled Mash'al, the political head of Hamas based in Damascus, said recently that he was surprised by the length and ferocity of Israel's response to the escalation of rocket attacks at the end of last year. He expected only a three-day retaliation at most.

By not prolonging the campaign further, Israel has left Hamas to contemplate not only the hostility it has incurred on the part of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other moderate Arab Muslims but also the harsh feeling of betrayal at the hands of its erstwhile supporters—Syria, Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah. They all contented themselves with issuing daily exhortations to the fighters to carry on the struggle to the bitter end as they themselves took cover and failed to fire one shot in defense of their clients. Only when the main fighting was over were Damascus and Tehran profuse in offering moral support and resupplies of missiles.

Still digesting this bitter pill of loss and defeat, Hamas has entered a period of introspection. It must ask itself whether it is going to continue as cannon fodder for the interests of Damascus or Tehran. And, more important, it must consider whether it can retain the public support of the Palestinian masses once the true significance of this recent debacle sets in after so many years in which its strength was growing.

Those of us on the other side who are seeking peace in the Middle East should also take this opportunity of a seriously weakened Hamas to reflect on how we might bring it into the political process instead of just confronting it with tanks in the back alleys of Gaza.

To start with, let's remember the course of events over recent years. Hamas survived two five-year periods of uprising—two Intifadas—the second of which saw a massive Israeli effort to decapitate it and put it out of business. Then, to the surprise of all, including the leaders of Hamas, the administration of George W. Bush inexplicably demanded that Israel and the Palestinian Authority permit its participation in the 2006 Palestinian general election—even though it had not renounced terror and did not recognize the right of Israel to exist. Though Hamas won an absolute majority of seats in parliament, it was not granted the legitimacy required to govern by those who insisted it participate in the elections in the first place. Even a Saudi-brokered national unity government personally promoted by King Abdullah was refused recognition by both Israel and the United States.

The US and Israel have since succeeded in mobilizing broad international support for a list of conditions that Hamas must meet in order for it to be accepted as a player in the Palestinian equation. First, it must abide by all agreements reached by the Palestinian Authority. Second, it must refrain from all acts of violence. Third, it must recognize Israel's right to exist. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has publicly reaffirmed that these conditions will remain unchanged.

Yet, recognition of Israel's right to exist was never imposed on the Arab states or even Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization as a precondition for status as a legitimate partner in negotiation. Surely this is an ideological, not a political, position that must be reconsidered.

Though it is true that Hamas has steadfastly refused to accept the three conditions, especially "the right of Israel to exist," its leadership has nonetheless been saying over the past year that it will accept the United Nations-specified 1967 borders between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors as "provisional borders" for a Palestinian state. Is that not tantamount to a declaration of acceptance of another state—Israel—on the other side of the 1967 divide?

Rather than pressure Hamas to renounce their ideology, why not take them up on their formula of 1967 borders and gradually entice them to participate in the political process as the rational players they surely are? Any move from the arena of ideology to the realm of practical, down-to-earth solutions is surely desirable.

Now is the time to make such as move. In one of the many strange turns of history, it could well be that Hamas can only hope to recoup its losses in Gaza by teaming up again with the Palestinian Authority led by the aging and ever-weakening Abu Mazen. From the Palestinian perspective, the performance of the rump Palestinian leadership in Ramallah during the fighting was dismal and pathetic; they had nothing to offer and did nothing but publicly decry Israel's actions while privately praying for a resounding Israeli victory.

Although the international community supports the Palestinian Authority and wishes to strengthen it vis-a-vis Hamas, in reality, Fatah—the traditional movement led by Arafat for nearly 40 years—is rapidly losing ground in public opinion. Its only real chance of revival lies in an effort to re-create a government of national unity with Hamas—an effort specifically approved by the UN Security Council on Jan. 7.

Egypt is now attempting to bring the weakened factions of the Palestinian Authority together with Hamas in an act of reconciliation. Success is far from guaranteed since the bitterness between them runs very deep.

Perhaps for now the international community must leave the Palestinians to sort things out among themselves. If the end product takes the form of a unified leadership, with Hamas distancing itself from treacherous Tehran and focusing instead on Palestinian well-being, this might be worth the effort. Surely it is worth a try.

We should thus engage Hamas—not directly but through a national unity government—and propel them into a position where they will see the necessity of doing business with us. Hamas is not a religious movement. It's not like in Iran, where you have a religious leadership. Hamas is a temporal secular movement of people who do have deep religious beliefs, but their decisions are reached by political bodies. This is very important. Hamas leaders have been proved to be pragmatists when it's been in their interest.

The last thing we should do is frustrate that pragmatic bent with  ideological intransigence when practical intelligence is called for.