Engaging Hamas

Engaging Hamas

An issue of much deliberation in the blogosphere lately has been the initiation of negotiations with Hamas. Former U.S President Jimmy Carter has recently made his intentions known, once again, that he’d favor meeting with the Palestinian group in light of the increasing failure of the current American policy of isolation. Barack Obama has issued a weak statement in opposition to the proposed meeting between Carter and Khaled Meshaal in Syria next week, citing Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel and its status as a terrorist organization as his reasons. A recent post by Jeb Koogler over at FPWatch, a blog which I’d highly recommend for daily reading, takes umbrage at the presidential candidate’s statement and expresses disappointment at a lack of courage in Obama’s position to speak out against the Bush administration’s failing policy of isolation and containment. I found myself responding to this post by debating out loud the words displayed on my computer screen, not necessarily in disagreement with Jeb but with an interest to examine the implications of Carter’s meeting.

First, allow me to address the issue of Barack Obama in this discussion. While the consensus is that his response has been politically calculated, it was also weak at best and may serve to put some of his other positions into perspective. If a precondition for negotiation is the recognition of Israel, then U.S allies such as Saudi Arabia should accordingly be treated differently with regards to foreign policy. The current president has met with many heads of state whom have yet to recognize Israel. If the same conditions posed for a meeting with Hamas are applied to Iran, whose president Obama has indicated he is willing to meet with, his proposal suffers similar scrutiny. My take on Obama’s position towards meeting with America’s adversaries was that it was rooted in a moral and logical conviction, one which I was impressed by because of his perceived candor. His promised break from the failed policies of the past was refreshing, albeit slightly disconcerting if only for the inability to predict the implications of an alternative policy. Yet in light of his position towards Carter’s visit, Jeb’s expressed sentiment of disappointment is one I share.

However another aspect of this discussion which is conducive to disappointment has been the lack of mention of the metrics with which success of such a policy will be measured. In the same way the current policy of isolation and the insistence on preconditions for negotiations have had no historical precedent, the engagement of an Islamist group by the West with aim to push it towards moderacy has no precedent either. Therefore the advocacy of negotiations should not be cast as a solution to the crisis, but as a step towards eradicating a mentality which has caused such policy predicaments.

Looking solely at Carter’s visit though, I am tempted to declare that the reaction it is receiving from pundits and bloggers has been much ado about nothing. While providing the potential for a serious debate on the implications of such a policy, should it ever be officially adopted, the ensuing reaction has failed to deliver. For starters, a visit by Jimmy Carter will not realistically achieve anything significant, other than perhaps to attract a fair share of media coverage. I have not yet read what it is his visit is aiming to accomplish. Reports suggest “that the discussions will cover the issues of truce, prisoner swap and Palestinian reconciliation.” The Saudis and Egyptians have been negotiating these issues, with little success. The issues dividing the Palestinian factions are deeply nuanced. Carter will be attempting to accomplish what others have not been able to, and without any backing from an official body directly involved in the conflict.

And if it is not necessarily the intention of the former president to broker some sort of peace in the near future, his visit will be seen as an exercise of legitimizing Hamas in the eyes of the world. While one may argue that this is necessarily inevitable, given the support Hamas receives at home, without any significant change in U.S foreign policy this legitimization will only serve to anger allies who have been working within the realm of American policy to prescribe some sort of peace to the region. It could shift the moral authority in the way of Hamas, contrasting the U.S policy of isolation with its defiance by one of the country’s former leaders, and placing a measure of empathy on a group which has waged campaigns of terror in order to prevent peace in the past. It could potentially upset allies like Egypt, who will suffer from the parallel of increased engagement with Hamas with their treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In principle, I am not an advocate of isolation and boycott. The United States should talk to some of its adversaries, given that there are predetermined goals which are to be reached, as well as a careful evaluation indicating the U.S would be able to realize those goals with engagement. And while I do not see the proposed trip by Carter as overly significant, I struggle to comprehend what the endeavor aims to accomplish. Unless an American administration declares its intentions to open a dialogue with Hamas, any visits by former officials will not only fail to solve the problems which exist in the Palestinian territories, but would add legitimacy to a group before the world is able to adjust its policies to handle the effects of that. Let us remember that there are significant moral arguments to be made against Hamas, and that the policy of isolation and boycott was not entirely misguided in its intent but rather its calculation and execution. It is time for a new policy towards Hamas, but it should not start with Jimmy Carter.