My talk with Hamas about peace with
By Helena Cobban
from the June 24, 2009 edition –
Since his first days in office, President Obama has defined
winning a final peace between
On Jan. 21 he named former Senate majority leader George
Mitchell his envoy to achieve that peace, and Mr. Mitchell has since made four
fact-finding trips to the
Hamas has been on the State Department's "terrorism
list" since its founding in 1987. It has steadfastly refused to recognize
In 2006 it won parliamentary elections held in the West Bank
Clearly, if there is to be a Palestinian team at any peace negotiations, its work must be supported by Hamas as well as Fatah. But can Hamas, whose 1988 Charter still rejects participation in peace conferences and calls for an end to the State of Israel, really be judged a valid party to the peacemaking?
The history of numerous other peace efforts indicates it
can. Consider the examples of
In both those earlier cases, parties invited to the table were required to verifiably set aside their arms (though not, in the first instance, to disarm completely). They were also required to agree to principles of nonviolent, democratic decisionmaking. It worked.
Stereotypes and challenges
Many Westerners might think of Hamas as only a collection of gun-toting fanatics intent on killing civilian Israelis. But Hamas also has a strong civilian wing that provides valued services in many Palestinian communities.
In 2006 it was that wing that participated peacefully and successfully in the nationwide vote. Meanwhile, Hamas's military wing has shown during several periods that it can exercise full or near-full restraint during cease-fires: That happened in 2005 and 2008, and has generally been the case in recent months, too.
One major challenge for today's peacemakers has been Hamas's refusal to meet the three preconditions that Washington and its allies in the international "Quartet" set in 2006, before they would even start talking to it.
Hamas, they said, must renounce violence, recognize
Hamas, part of the solution?
I interviewed Hamas head Khaled Meshaal, in
Discussing the "Mitchell Principles," established
by Mitchell during his successful peacemaking in
Meshaal is a sober, intelligent man who talks in a way that seems much more "political," and politically savvy, than religious. He stressed that Hamas wanted to be "part of the solution, not part of the problem."
He expressed a strong desire for Hamas to heal its present
deep rift with Fatah. He also reaffirmed Hamas's support for a 2006 proposal
whereby Abbas or other non-Hamas negotiators would conduct the actual peace
If Hamas and Fatah can rebuild enough trust to authorize a unified Palestinian team to start negotiating, this proposal could allow peace talks to proceed without finding a complete prior answer to the West's "dealing with Hamas" problem.
Meshaal also restated Hamas's support for establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel, in the areas that Israel occupied in 1967 – providing that all the occupied land, including East Jerusalem, as well as the right of Palestinian refugees to return to areas they fled in 1948, would also be implemented.
No Israeli government would accept this plan as it stands. But it represents a notable shift toward pragmatism and away from the positions stated in Hamas's 1988 Charter. It can be seen as Hamas's starting point in a negotiation in which all parties would need to show further flexibility. The hard-line language in Hamas's Charter – as in the 1999 Charter of Israel's Likud Party – could be changed somewhere in the future, as happened in the South African peacemaking, rather than requiring it to be changed upfront.
If Hamas is folded into the peacemaking, it would emerge –
In addition, if Obama's peace diplomacy works – with Israelis,
Palestinians, and other Arabs – then the whole Arab-Israeli arena would become
very different from what we see today.
Helena Cobban's latest book is "Re-engage!
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