Among the litany of offenses that some hawkish pro-Israel advocates are accusing former Senator Chuck Hagel—the Obama Administration’s presumed choice for Secretary of Defense—of is his support for U.S. engagement with Hamas. This opinion, it is alleged, betrays a lack of commitment to Israel, which is sufficient grounds for opposing his nomination in the eyes of some members of the pro-Israel lobby. Setting aside the question of whether support for Israel should be the sole criterion to run the Pentagon, favoring a different approach to Hamas should not simply be deemed anti-Israel. On the contrary, recognizing that current American policy towards Hamas has failed and needs to be changed is in Israel’s best interests.
Yes, Hamas engages in terrorism and its public rhetoric is deeply disturbing (Hamas leader Khaled Meshal’s recent speech on his ‘homecoming’ to Gaza made President Abbas’s U.N. speech sound like an address to AIPAC). Hamas’s founding Charter, issued in 1988, is replete with anti-Semitic themes, and its alliance with Iran is problematic to say the least. Hamas is certainly not a nice organization, whatever essential benefits its social welfare arm has provided to desperately poor Palestinians. It is Israel’s sworn enemy and it is unlikely to ever become its partner for peace. But none of this means that the United States shouldn’t talk to Hamas or encourage it to reconcile with its rival Fatah to form a unified Palestinian government. In fact, we are already negotiating indirectly with Hamas through the Egyptians.
Talking to Hamas certainly has its drawbacks. It will enhance its international legitimacy and probably boost its popularity among Palestinians, and it will further undermine the power of President Abbas. Nor will these talks likely result in Hamas’ sudden transformation into a moderate, responsible actor. At best, they might strengthen the less radical individuals and factions within the movement and encourage its slow, halting, on-again, off-again transition from being a resistance movement aimed at Israel’s destruction to becoming a political movement concerned with ruling a Palestinian state that exists alongside Israel.
If talking with Hamas is bad, however, then not talking with Hamas is worse. The lamentable fact is that Hamas is firmly in control of the Gaza Strip and popular in the West Bank as well, especially since its ‘success’ in its recent mini-war with Israel (according to a new poll, Hamas’s Prime Minister in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh would defeat Abbas if a vote were held now for the Presidency of the Palestinian Authority). Like it or not, this means that dealing with the Palestinians means dealing with Hamas. To ignore this reality or try to change it by ignoring Hamas is both futile and counterproductive.
Ever since Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006, the United States, together with the European Union and Israel, have tried to overturn this democratic election result and prevent Hamas from governing the Palestinians. Needless to say, this has failed miserably. Instead of undermining Hamas, American policy—pursued by both the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration—has only served to help bring about a brief Palestinian civil war in June 2007, a deep split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a divided Palestinian leadership, a weak and discredited Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, a moribund peace process, two short wars between Israel and Hamas (last month’s and in December-January 2008-2009), countless rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, and great suffering for many innocent Palestinians. How is this good for Israel, or for that matter, the United States (not to mention the Palestinians)? And does anyone really believe that maintaining current U.S. policy towards Hamas will bring about better results in the future?
A change in U.S. policy toward Hamas is long overdue (as is a change in Israel’s policy). To countenance such a change, or advocate for one—as I am now doing—does not make one anti-Israel, just as it wasn’t anti-Israel in the 1980s to argue that the United States and Israel should talk to the PLO. Then, as now, hawkish pro-Israel activists branded anyone who dissented from the American and Israeli policy of not talking with the PLO as being anti-Israel. But when the Reagan Administration finally abandoned this policy twenty-four years ago this week, and the Rabin government in Israel did so a few years later (in 1993), those who had once been smeared as enemies of Israel were regarded as prescient friends of Israel. Rather than being challenged on his pro-Israel bona fides, Chuck Hagel should be seen in the same manner.