Getting It Wrong On Hamas

Obama has finally drawn a line in the sand about negotiating with foreign leaders. Too bad he’s drawn it in the wrong place.

“Sen. Obama does not agree with President Carter’s decision to go forward with [a meeting with exiled Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal] because he does not support negotiations with Hamas until they renounce terrorism, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and abide by past agreements,” a spokesman for the Obama campaign said. “As president, Obama will negotiate directly with the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.” (Source: JTA)

What a shame that Obama doesn’t have the guts to support Carter and denounce a policy — the isolation of Hamas — that has brought such misery and achieved so little. Ismail Haniyeh’s besieged government is not significantly weaker than it was in 2006, and nor have the Palestinians decided to give up on supporting the militant-cum-political organization. In fact, recent polls have shown that support for Hamas has actually risen higher than that for Fatah, and that Haniyeh would beat Fatah’s candidate in a general election. If that’s not a sign that the policy has failed, I’m not sure what is.

Furthermore, there’s a humanitarian and moral angle for opposing the current policy of isolation towards Hamas. By maintaining an economic blockade against Gaza, Israel is engaging in a policy of collective punishment. Israel, which controls Gaza’s borders, taxes, and imports, has cut off most of the essential supplies needed by the territory’s 1.5 million residents. A widening crisis of malnutrition, poorly-stocked health clinics, regular power outages, unclean water, and crumbling infrastructure make life hell in Gaza. A recent report by CARE argued that the humanitarian situation, under the Israeli embargo, is as bad as it’s been in 40 years. People are literally starving.

Yes, Hamas’s status as both a political group and a militant organization makes negotiations complicated. But the group was democratically elected and must therefore be engaged with. Moreover, it is not logical to force Hamas to agree to numerous preconditions before talks begin. The establishment of such preconditions has no historical precedence; Israel took part in intense discussions with the PLO, Jordan, and Egypt before any of these parties had renounced violence against the Jewish state. The renunciation of violence and the recognition of Israel would seem to be the end goal, not mere preconditions to the talks. (In a similar way, it makes no sense to ask Iran to suspend enrichment before negotiations get underway.) As Efraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad said in an interview, “there is logic in the Hamas’ position that ideological ‘conversion’ is the endgame and not the first move in a negotiation.”

And it’s not just Halevy who believes in engaging Hamas unconditionally. Add to the list Brent Scowcroft, Zbiegniew Brzezinski, Thomas Pickering, Eric Shinseki, Paul Volcker, Lawrence Korb, Anatol Lieven, Lawrence Wilkerson, Joseph Wilson, and Colin Powell. That Obama doesn’t understand the failure of our Hamas isolation policy, or that he just doesn’t have the courage to stand up and speak out against it, is depressing. He’s not even president yet and, for me, disillusionment is already starting to set in.