Rather than debate whether it's time to negotiate with Hamas, the real question is "negotiate over what?" Until that answer becomes clear, the idea of negotiating just for the sake of negotiating would be a waste of time, and would probably only lead to an escalation in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
There is a spectre haunting diplomatic groupthink today in the United States, particularly among critics of the Bush administration. It holds that where there is a problem, there must be American and international "engagement." A problem with Iran? Engage Iran. With Syria? Engage Syria. Blockage in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations? Well, let's try something different and talk to Hamas.
But almost never does anyone think this through. Talk to Hamas about what? Indeed, what does Hamas care to talk about? No one ever credibly explains that part. Instead, we are presented with this proposition: Hamas may not be sincere in wanting peace with Israel, but until we talk to the movement we won't know.
But that vacuous argument comes with stringent costs. If states engage Hamas today, then they can say goodbye to Fatah and to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Is that desirable? Negotiating with Hamas will also in many ways mean indirectly negotiating with Iran and Syria, and neither has any interest in encouraging Hamas to give up violence. Does the international community really want to bargain with Iran and Syria to resolve the Palestinian conflict? Do Damascus and Tehran have any aim other than to use Palestinians to advance their own agendas? Is that dependency where everyone wants to push the Palestinians?
Also, what do those engaging Hamas get in exchange for doing so? After all, Hamas would be rewarded by recognition; but what would it be willing to give up?
The obvious answer is that it must at least recognize Israel's right to exist, in the same way that the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan did when the Madrid process began in 1991. But for the international community in general, and the United States in particular, to avoid imposing on Hamas the condition of recognition that it imposed on the PLO in the past seems absurd. To accept a long-term truce as a sufficient condition to engage Hamas is no progress at all, particularly if Hamas uses that truce to overwhelm its adversaries inside Palestinian society and build up its weapons stocks for a long-term military struggle against Israel. Both goals are consistent with Hamas' rhetoric until now, which, bizarrely, the "engagers" never bother to take very seriously.
In fact, if recognition is not set as a minimal condition to engage Hamas, this would only confirm that the international community hasn't a clue about the endgame in Palestinian-Israeli talks. Why? Because placing the ill-defined gesture of talking above the substantive matter of recognizing the other party means that Hamas has nothing to lose by continuing to deny recognition. If Hamas is invited to the table despite refusing to offer recognition, if that invitation allows it to become the most powerful, in fact the sole, representative of the Palestinian people, then why should Hamas offer recognition at all, particularly if its strategy is precisely what the movement says it is: to regain the whole of Palestine for the Palestinians?
The idea of "talking" has become a fetish. America and the international community must talk to its enemies and all will be well, is the proliferating belief. But talking without a clear sense of purpose underpinning those talks will only hearten those on the other side who have unequivocal goals very different than those of the "engagers." It will also undercut those Palestinians who have shown a willingness to arrive at a peace deal acceptable to all. Israel has given them absolutely nothing in terms of encouragement. But pushing Hamas to the table is hardly the way to improve things.
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