In another excellent article Vartan Oskanian, the former Foreign Minister of Armenia, makes the case against excluding Hamas from Israel-Palestine talks. Although he is primarily focusing on the immediate need for a long-term ceasefire in Gaza, I think most of the arguments can be expanded to cover final peace talks overall — and why Hamas must be included.
Here are some of the points he makes, although I suggest everyone read the full essay, which is extremely thoughtful and balanced:
What’s happening in Gaza is not simply deplorable. It is – or ought to be – unacceptable. There cannot be any legal, humanitarian or logical justification. Missiles, underground tunnels and even Hamas’s professed determination to eliminate Israel do not justify the kind of collective and indiscriminate punishment of a civilian population in which the state of Israel is engaged.
Why? Because none of those Hamas goals and actions have had or can have any profound national security and existential threat for Israel and both Hamas and Israel know it. Hamas cannot destroy Israel, and Israel knows that it cannot reoccupy Gaza and eradicate Hamas at a cost that Israelis are willing to bear. So each side uses the other for its own goals.
Hamas presents a convenient bogeyman for the right-wing Israelis opposed to a two-state solution. Hamas’ hostile actions and loud threats provide ample reason to argue why Palestinians cannot be trusted in peace.
Hamas’ existence and legitimacy are derived from an ideology and strategy anchored on confrontation and resistance. The movement represents to many Palestinians an effort to preserve their national identity and pride by resisting and defying the occupation.
This is absolutely not to say that firing rockets into Israel, kidnapping Israeli citizens or blowing them up are acceptable or justifiable. The challenge here is to understand and appreciate the timing of events, their context, the proportionality of actions and each side’s vision about their own people and the future of the entire region.
I also found compelling his observation on the mixed signals Israel and its Western allies have sent on the notion of self-governance and democracy:
Meanwhile, the Western promotion of democracy in Palestine has taken different twists and turns. At one point, elections were resisted out of concern that it would enhance Yasser Arafat’s standing and image among the Palestinians. His death was hailed as an opportunity for the realisation of a vision of a democratic Palestinian state. It seems that for observers, or interested bystanders, elections are fine as long as they do not go the wrong way.
I flagged that passage in particular because I have noticed that Israel’s government tends to deal only with those it wishes to deal with, and once someone else takes the place of the previous government — as typically happens with democracies — everything falls apart, as if Israel cannot possibly adjust and move forward.
The reality of international relations, of course, is that we do not always get our preferred partner next door through democratic or other homegrown processes. A liberal democracy, one hopes, would seek to promote liberal democracy elsewhere, even while recognizing that might be the result. Instead, Israel accepts “realist” foreign policy’s aversion to the notion that democratization of neighbors is a high-priority/desirable goal, but then strips out the more critical recognition that countries have to accept the cards they are dealt with regard to their neighbors and not pretend that they have a different hand because they’d like that one better.
With the Palestinian territories, this mindset seems to manifest itself in recent Israeli policy as a determination since early 2006 to refuse to let the elected government take office after going to the trouble of setting up a system of democratic elections for the Palestinian territories. Why take this stance? One element seems to be a refusal to acknowledge that negotiating with the leaders chosen by the Palestinian people probably would produce more sustainable outcomes than a deal secured by leaders with no popular mandate. But the culprit, in part, also seems to be Israel’s (relatively successful) history of avoiding dealing with democratically-selected leaders generally, in favor of (more predictable) self-selecting authoritarian governments, who can be counted on not to change their minds suddenly or cave to pressure from various constituencies as easily.
From an alliance with the government of apartheid South Africa to various official and secret partnerships and negotiations with authoritarian-leaning or absolutist governments in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey over the decades, it is clear that Israel feels far more comfortable dealing with either foreign governments that Israel chooses or foreign governments that nobody chooses. The arrival of the democratic process (and decline in military rule) in its neighbors makes Israel’s leaders very skittish, as declining relations with Turkey indicated as its military was sidelined, or as tensions with Egypt between military governments suggested. Today, this results in refusing to deal with Hamas and only talking to Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas, whose presidency in the Palestinian territories is now in its 9th year since elections were held.
However, with the other countries, the threat to Israel came from state military forces and therefore securing their support via deals with authoritarian rulers made a kind of strategic sense, which has held up so far, even if it will probably eventually backfire. If, for example, the Egyptian people (or even average soldiers) continue to oppose Israel — which they do — they aren’t going to go rogue en masse and invade Israel all by themselves. That would only happen with orders from the top. Thus, a self-perpetuating dictatorship at the top is viewed as a safer partner.
However, the threat from the Palestinians, as with Lebanon, is not from state actors and regular armed forces but rather from a popular insurgency. Thus, even handpicking the government wouldn’t change the nature of the threat to Israel. Without popular support for any Palestinian leader making a deal, a deal will be meaningless. Whoever makes a deal with Israel is going to have to be able to go back and sell it to their base, which means they have to have a base. A representative during negotiations must actually represent someone. Israel wishing for a different popular choice of representatives from the Palestinian side won’t change that reality.
Indeed, this brings us back to the larger problem in Israeli policy of a desire to be in control of not just the content and terms of negotiations, but also who is participating in them. Like it or not, the Palestinians very narrowly elected a plurality of Hamas MPs in the January 2006 legislative elections, which implied Hamas would be representing or co-representing the Palestinians in ongoing talks, as the leading party in the Palestinian cabinet. That was the choice of the same voters who will be needed later to get on board with any peace deal. Nevertheless, within 5 days of the election — before Hamas had even taken office — Israel and Western backers announced heavy sanctions on the Palestinian Authority (and the indefinite seizure of $600 million per year in Palestinian tax revenue).
It was stated that the sanctions would not be lifted unless Hamas agreed to conditions previously negotiated by the unelected PLO without their consent, or anyone’s consent, really. That demand on Hamas was a particularly hard pill to swallow for a group formed in the late 1980s as an alternative to the PLO and elected in opposition to PLO/Fatah corruption. It was also, I would argue, a fairly hasty and short-sighted move, given that rocket attacks from Gaza had fallen dramatically in the 5 months between the Israeli withdrawal from the Strip and the 2006 Palestinian elections — and given the reality that most of the key hardliners in the Hamas political leadership had been killed in the preceding few years and replaced by more moderate figures, who expressed an openness to compromise. Read more