Michael Young
The Daily Star (Opinion)
March 5, 2009 - 1:00am

You can say many disparaging things about the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, but he did manage, until his dying breath, to preserve what was known as the independence of the Palestinian decision. Under Arafat's guidance, the Palestinian Liberation Organization was able for decades to avoid falling under the sway of an Arab state, particularly Syria, which tried as of the late 1960s to bring the PLO to heel.

That's why you have to wonder whether those who argue today that the international community, and Western nations in particular, should initiate a dialogue with Hamas, have really thought the idea through. In times of stalemate a novel idea is often mistaken for a good one. With the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations going nowhere, and not likely to in the coming year, the inventive proposal is that talking to Hamas may help bring about a negotiated settlement.

Once you've disregarded the counter-intuitive view that legitimizing a movement that opposes a settlement will make a settlement more likely, you can address the matter of definition. For many Western states, Hamas is a terrorist organization, which alone should deny it any measure of endorsement. However, those in favor of engaging Hamas would argue that definitions can cut both ways in the Middle East, and often stifle creative thinking. In some ways they are right, but let's for the moment, to carry our argument further, set aside the momentarily irresolvable matter of definition and suggest where the engagers are more strikingly wrong.

For one thing, opening a dialogue with Hamas would signal the political end of Fatah and of the PLO as we know it. Once states begin normalizing their relations with the Islamist movement, the nature of the Palestinian Authority will change, and President Mahmoud Abbas' de facto marginalization will virtually be formalized. Hamas' priority in recent years has been to assert its authority over the Palestinian political scene. It seeks a long-term truce with Israel to buy time to impose its writ on the home front. Hamas dreams of a day when it will run the PLO in the place of Fatah, and when it will rule over the Palestinian Authority.

Do those who want to see the Palestinians regain their rights really feel that their cause will gain once it is represented by a militant Islamist movement? That Palestinian secular nationalism should devolve to a religious brotherhood that interprets the struggle for Palestine in messianic terms, and justifies violence in the name of God, would be a catastrophe worse than the defeat of 1948 for the Palestinians.

You also have to question why the engagers, many of them Western or Arab liberals who tend to be secular and nonviolent, see so many possibilities in a movement that is deeply illiberal, religiously intolerant, and violent. The only explanation is that in their innate positivism, in their fervent desire to find happy endings in Palestine, where none have been forthcoming, the engagers have abandoned the liberal principles that should be underpinning any serious peace effort.

Preserving the independence of the Palestinian decision is another reason why any invitation for a dialogue with Hamas should be thought through very carefully. In its ambition to weaken Fatah, Hamas has pawned much of its political liberty to Syria and Iran. At no time was this better shown than before the recent fighting in Gaza, when Hamas' Damascus-based leadership worked to scuttle Egypt's attempt at mediating a new truce with Israel. This served mainly a Syrian and an Iranian agenda to pry the Gaza card out of Cairo's hands, thereby gaining for Syria and Iran, each for its own reasons, the initiative on the Palestinian front.

It may have made tactical sense for Hamas to go along with this, as the movement is chafing at the Egyptian stranglehold on Gaza, and needs Damascus and Tehran for its weapons and financing. However, when the plan backfired, the consequences were dire for Gaza's inhabitants, who were made to endure weeks of brutal Israeli retaliation.

For some, the solution to these dilemmas is the creation of a Palestinian unity government. The idea is appealing, but is it realistic? The fact is that no unity government is possible when Hamas and Fatah cannot even agree over the fundamentals of what such a government would be called upon to address: peace with Israel. Hamas continues to reject recognition of Israel as a precondition for its entry into such a government. And the movement can afford to do so. With the arrival of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli prime minister, the prospects for progress in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations will descend to nil. Hamas sees no reason to concede anything on the recognition front; indeed, it has an interest in not doing so, so as to derail diplomatic movement that would only benefit Abbas.

This leaves the most powerful argument of the Hamas engagers: That the movement is so strong on the ground that it cannot be circumvented. For practical reasons, international organizations in Gaza already have open channels to the movement. Many governments also carry on formal or informal discussions with Hamas. However, if the idea is that Arab and Western governments should offer the movement heightened recognition so that they would come to deal with Hamas in Gaza as a legitimate parallel power to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, then this would harden Palestinian divisions and encourage Hamas to accelerate its efforts to wipe out Fatah and take over the PLO.

Sometimes, no solution is better than a bad one. Hamas is undeniably a difficult interlocutor to avoid on Palestinian issues. The movement has effective veto power over most major Palestinian decisions. However, negotiating with Hamas would only better allow it to change the subject away from what it wants most to avoid: a settlement with Israel along the post-Oslo lines defined during the 1990s. If deadlock is assured on the Palestinian track in the coming year, then it's best to avoid talking to Hamas, allowing the Palestinians themselves, perhaps in the next elections, to cut the movement down to size first. And if they don't do so, then they should prepare to see their national aspirations postponed indefinitely.


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