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Hussein Ibish

Legitimize Hamas and kiss the PLO goodbye

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.

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and he blogs at www.ibishblog.com.

  • Chris USA

    If legitimizing Hamas means replacing its current leadership then the course of action should be to impose upon Egypt the cost of maintaing Hamas. After the dust settles we can make Hamas into a credible PA extension of government. For all they cry about Gazan Arabs living in destitution the refugees in Lebanon crave Gaza's poverty for themselves - they see how fat the Gazans really are compared to themselves. Removing a few obese Hamas leaders should do wonders for Lebanon's refugees who can then find a way back home.

    September 13, 2010

  • Salt

    Cast Lead was an operation to stop Hamas rockets, it was very successful in doing so. There is no way to involve Hamas in elections, as Hamas shows its colors now,, by actively trying to stop peace, one cannoy negotiate peace with a group that does suicide bombings to stop peace negotiations, nor iwth a group whose charter calls for a genocide of the Jews in a forest.

    September 9, 2010

  • David

    Hussain Ibish and the American Task Force on Palestine are "our" (American) servile Palestinians. This point of view is not unexpected. But Hamas is not a bunch of jihadis in Toyotas with rocket launchers. They are an elected constituency, as much as Ibish would like us to forget it. They MUST be included in peace talks.

    September 8, 2010

  • Sami

    The main problem with this counter argument is the terminology used, as the it centers around 'legitimizing' Hamas. In fact, in terms the author is not doubt familiar with, legitimacy in this sense is not a construct that can be accorded solely to the classifications of western or Israeli entities--which is the prism through which the author seeks to address the issue. Legitimacy need be a more objective concept that stems from an actual democratic process which is, in part, a result of an election that Hamas won in 2006. This cannot be easily discounted as has been done here. Secondly, another theme that is conveniently discarded is the rampant corruption of the PA, which again does not lend credibility to his arguments. Finally, if there is some sort of agreement that comes out of the talks, how will these be implemented without bringing Hamas into the fold? It seems to me like the author is leading us into a cul de sac without offering any solutions.

    September 8, 2010

  • Joshua Rosenstein

    The author contributed 14 paragraphs against talking to Hamas. Unfortunately there were 0 paragraphs analyzing any alternatives. What kind of article is this? If the goal is to cancel out Hamas and what they stand for then what to do? 2009 saw operation Cast Lead. This was a military operations to destroy Hamas. They were not destroyed. The 'soft' military operation is the blockade. This too failed to unseat Hamas. After the flotilla incident Israel has hurt itself more than Hamas. Gaza has been cast into complete misery, it has been invaded, blockaded and bombarded. They are still launching operations against Israel, however weakly. What next? Either Israel needs a firm decision to shed the blood of its soldiers until the job is done and not quit after losing 10, or they need a new strategy.

    September 8, 2010