Paul Pillar

Hamas Presents an Opportunity

The regional tour of Ismail Haniyeh, who began his travel in Egypt, reflects the fact that Hamas is on the move in more ways than one. Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, is making his first official visits anywhere outside the strip since the dust-up with Fatah in 2007 that resulted in Hamas taking control of Gaza a year after its victory in an all-Palestinian parliamentary election. As Bilal Saab highlighted in these spaces last week, the Hamas leadership appears to be making a more fundamental move, also indicated by other sources, away from violence as the primary means of pursuing the objective of Palestinian self-determination in the face of Israeli resistance. Senior Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas met in Cairo last week and put their reconciliation process back on track by agreeing to form a committee to prepare for a new round of Palestinian elections and to restructure the Palestinian Liberation Organization to permit the accession of Hamas to the PLO.

Political events in other Arab countries clearly have a lot to do with the political activity involving Hamas. The surge of Arab activism on behalf of popular sovereignty, a surge in which Islamists have played a leading role in the use of peaceful democratic methods in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, gives Hamas additional reason to identify with and try to become a part of that peaceful political action. Haniyeh's trip, beginning with meetings with leaders of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, symbolizes that. Whatever the motivations, the activity involving Hamas presents a major opportunity to get rolling a diplomatic process that would be capable of leading to real agreements that would bring Palestinians and Israelis closer to real peace. The two major Palestinian parties are moving toward forming a single joint interlocutor for negotiations, and the party that had been associated in the public mind with violence is moving onto a nonviolent path. How will Israel respond to that opportunity? And—given that the early indications of that response are depressingly, familiarly negative—how will the United States respond?

Of course we will hear yet again a familiar litany of conditions involving Hamas having to utter certain words, especially an explicit recognition of Israel. The very reasonable response to that is to ask: why should Hamas do that first, given that Israel has never come close to recognizing Hamas—even after Hamas won a Palestinian election fair and square? In fact, Israel has gone to great lengths to try to strangle Hamas, even to the extreme of using measures that have caused death and suffering among many Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who do not even belong to Hamas. Why should peremptory recognition work only one way (especially when the violence has been two-way)? And this with an Israeli government that supposedly doesn't like conditions to negotiations—but that's only when the condition is not an utterance of recognition but instead the cessation of unilateral creation of facts on the ground that, as long as it goes on, leaves less and less to negotiate over. Mutual recognition can be embodied in whatever agreements are negotiated.

However distasteful Israelis or anyone else may find Islamist politics, Hamas cannot be wished—or strangled—away. Walling off the strip that it governs doesn't make it, or the constituency where it finds support, go away. The task concerning Hamas is to encourage it to go farther onto a peaceful path and discourage it from returning to violence. What Hamas is doing right now—especially in its dealings with Abbas, in laying the groundwork for more free elections and for participation in direct negotiations with Israel—is exactly the sort of behavior that ought to be encouraged. Unfortunately the response so far by the Netanyahu government is exactly the opposite: to discourage such peaceful behavior and to give the movement every reason to return to violence. The Israeli government says it will not negotiate with a delegation that includes Hamas representatives and, at least as far as East Jerusalem is concerned, will block the holding of any election that includes Hamas candidates. For anyone genuinely interested in Arab-Israeli peace, this posture is the acme of foolishness.

Of course, Netanyahu may not be genuinely interested in a negotiated peace, and the current posture toward Hamas may be just another in the series of roadblocks and rationales for putting off the day when his government has to sit down and talk about giving up the occupied land that some on the Israeli right want to cling to indefinitely. If so, then the posture is not foolish as far as the government's immediate objectives are concerned—just reprehensible. But it is still foolish as far as Israel's long-term interests are concerned.