Hussein Ibish
NOW Lebanon (Opinion)
September 6, 2010 - 12:00am

With the resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, numerous voices in the United States have been urging the inclusion of Hamas in international diplomacy, a focus on Palestinian unity, or some formal American outreach to the Palestinian Islamist group.

There are many different ways of arriving at such a position. One is to allege, as MJ Rosenberg of Media Matters has, that without Hamas there is no chance of any Palestinian leadership being able to deliver on a peace agreement. This ignores the extent to which Hamas’ appeal relies on cynicism and despair about peace, and the likely surge of legitimation for any leadership that can secure independence for the Palestinians.

Another assumes that Hamas is somehow more “authentic” than the Palestine Liberation Organization because it is a violent revolutionary group. Some have transferred sympathy for left-wing revolutionaries of the past to this ultra right-wing fundamentalist organization precisely because it is violent and revolutionary. The preposterous assertion of Judith Butler, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, that both Hamas and Hezbollah are part of the “global left” is only true if the left is reduced to those militantly opposed to the status quo, in which case almost all religious fanatics and almost everyone on the extreme right would be perfectly valid candidates for inclusion.

A third begins by emphasizing democracy, and confusing democracy with elections only (though elections are a sine qua non of democracy), without due attention to the need for transparent, accountable institutions. George Washington University professor Nathan Brown has recently argued that because there have been no Palestinian elections in years so that terms in office have expired, there are two equally illegitimate and authoritarian Palestinian Authorities, one in Ramallah and the other in Gaza.

Arguments assuming that elections alone are what matter and that ignore why there can be no elections (Hamas is blocking them because it rightly fears the results), and that also ignore differences in legitimacy and repression between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas rule in Gaza, invariably end up becoming a brief for Hamas’ aspirations within Palestinian society. They also make Hamas at least co-equal with the PLO as a legitimate international representative of the Palestinian people.

Harvard professor Stephen Walt recently suggested that if peace negotiations fail, “Hamas will be in a strong position” to lead “a Palestinian campaign for political rights within [a] single state, based on well-established norms of justice and democracy.” Walt doesn’t seem to understand what Hamas is, what it believes in, what it opposes, or the implications of its regional affiliations. The idea that Hamas might become a civil-rights movement for international standards of justice and democracy is simply laughable.

It was particularly ridiculous given that Walt and others were expressing similarly naïve or disingenuous opinions either right before, or in Walt’s case right after, Hamas showed its true colors once again by attempting to sabotage the current peace negotiations – which the organization fears might succeed in ending the conflict before it can unseat the PLO. This Hamas did by murdering four Israeli settlers in a drive-by shooting; it claimed “full responsibility” for the killings, called them “heroic,” vowed to repeat the crime (and tried to the very next day), and declared all Israeli settlers to be “legitimate military targets.”

If this didn’t cut through the fog of the “constructive ambiguity” employed by Hamas leaders through a relentless pattern of contradictory statements designed to appeal simultaneously to hard-core Islamists and Western sympathizers, I can’t imagine what will. Actions are the surest test of any ideology, not a mountain of contradictory rhetoric.

All these analyses ignore the likely consequences of international moves to legitimize Hamas and accord it similar status to the PLO, without Hamas agreeing to accept the terms laid out by the Middle East Quartet. These include recognition of a two-state solution, renunciation of terrorism, and acceptance of the legitimacy of existing Palestinian agreements.

The first consequence is that legitimizing Hamas would provide the Israeli extreme right with much more effective arguments in support of the occupation and the settlements as forward defenses in an existential conflict. These Israelis would claim that there is no Palestinian partner to negotiate with because Hamas insists it will never recognize Israel.

Second, recognition would lead to renewed isolation of all of the Palestinians and the occupied territories if the international community continues to view Hamas with deep suspicion; or it would signal a death blow to the PLO and, by extension, the whole Palestinian secular nationalist movement; or indeed it could lead to both.

Third, the rise of Hamas would alienate almost all the Arab states (with the possible exceptions of Syria and Qatar) who face Muslim Brotherhood or similar opposition groups attempting to overthrow their governments. It would likely lead to Palestinian isolation in the Arab world as well.

Palestinian national unity is crucial, but on whose terms will this unity be achieved? The square peg of jihad and martyrdom until victory cannot fit into the round hole of negotiations with Israel for a two-state solution. International legitimacy and recognition is a major asset to any party. Those who urge the United States and others to provide that gratis to Hamas will be doing so at the expense of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, favoring the Islamists in the internal Palestinian contest.

That is the first thing honest commentators who advocate such a path need to admit to themselves, and to everybody else.


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