Ten reasons to talk to Hamas

1. Diplomacy is not mainly about talking to people you agree with, but to people you disagree with.

2. They won a free and fair parliamentary election in 2006. Fateh’s Mahmoud Abbas won a free and fair presidential election in 2005. Outsiders have no credibility when they seek to include one of these parties while excluding and indeed also attacking the other.

3. For 18 months or more in 2005-6 Hamas participated in good faith in a ceasefire against Israel even though the ceasefire was not reciprocated by Israel either formally or informally.

4. When the British government finally realized it could not “defeat” the IRA by force but needed to explore reaching a political agreement with the IRA / Sinn Fein, they set as the only two preconditions for any party entering peace talks that it should (a) engage in good faith in a ceasefire and (b) demonstrate that it had at least some significant mandate from the electorate. The peace negotiations thereby started met with eventual success.

5. When the (White) South African government finally realized it could not “defeat” the ANC by force but needed to explore reaching a political agreement with the ANC and other anti-apartheid parties, they set as the only two preconditions for any party entering peace talks that it should (a) engage in good faith in a ceasefire and (b) be prepared to participate in good faith in an election. The peace process thereby started met with fairly rapid and amazingly far-reaching success.

6. In both those peace processes, and countless other successful peacemaking ventures around the world, the idea that one party– and one party only– should have to completely demobilize and disarm, and make significant concessions on its core political doctrine, before it could be admitted to any peace talks had already been proven to be a non-starter for many years before the more flexible, limited– and successful– view of the pre-requisites of peacemaking was adopted.

7. Everyone around the world should be opposed to acts that constitute terrorism, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other serious laws-of-war violations. As part of a reasonable ceasefire process, all parties should indeed be asked to foreswear the use of such vile, anti-humane tactics. (Though this would be strictly entailed in any meaningful ceasefire commitment, anyway.) However, the tactic of labeling one party to a contest as “terrorist” and arguing that that disqualifies it from inclusion in any peace diplomacy, while completely ignoring the very serious laws-of-war violations committed by other parties (a) is intrinsically inequitable and erodes respect for the integrity of the principles underlying the whole process, and (b) was shown to be completely unsuccessful in South Africa, Mozambique, and elsewhere. Getting stuck in the discourse of counter-“terrorism” blinded Maggie Thatcher and others to the reality of the situation in South Africa. In the Arab-Israeli arena, recourse to this same tactic has paralyzed the ability of the main western powers to play any constructive role in the diplomacy.

8. Hamas is very different from Al-Qaeda. Westerners need to to pursue intelligent policies that differentiate between, on the one hand, Islamist political movements that are rooted within and answerable to an identifiable national or sub-national community, and are willing to prove their links to this community by participating in good faith in free and fair elections (see #2 above), and on the other, Islamist movements that have no such community anchor or answerability but instead roam nihilistically across the world stage sowing destruction and tension wherever they go. If we and our leaders can’t engage in this kind of intelligent differentiation, then we’ll end up merely pushing additional tens or hundreds of millions of Muslim men and women into the ideological embrace of the nihilists.

9. Western governments already engage in intention-probing diplomacy with many international actors whose actions are far more damaging than those of Hamas. (Such as North Korea.) I understand the concern many people have with those parts of Hamas’s core ideology that threaten Israel’s existence; and indeed I share a good part of that concern. But Hamas leaders have talked about their readiness to enter into even a very lengthy, politically endorsed ceasefire with Israel (the tahdi’eh, which is a more serious undertaking than the merely operational hudna that they already engaged in for a long time, though it did not bring them any reciprocation.) Why should that Hamas proposal not be diplomatically probed?

10. The Palestinian issue cannot be resolved if the policy of excluding and attacking this significant component of the Palestinian body politic is maintained. Hundreds of millions of people around the world (Arabs, Muslims, and others) continue to consider this issue one of major significance in the encounter between the Western countries and the rest of the world. Realism, including the realism of compassionate and principles-based conflict termination, dictates that Hamas should be urgently included in the peace-seeking diplomacy.

(JWN readers who haven’t yet read the article I published about Hamas in Boston Review last summer might want to do so. It used much material from the reporting trip I had made to Gaza and Israel in February/March 2006. Several aspects of the situation have changed since then, of course. Principally, Hamas showed itself able to withstand the tight siege imposed around its strongholds in Gaza, and Fateh’s main leadership showed itself more willing than I had judged possible to accept the role of Inkatha/Contras that was being offered to it. Still, the broad political facts of the unconquerability of Hamas and the need to include it in any peacemaking effort that is serious both still remain. This, notwithstanding the hoopla in some of the western media over the current diplomacy, that involves a very small number of not terrifically representative Middle Eastern leaders.)

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