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.


  • DLS

    The nerve of Obama, refusing to be nice to lowlife criminal vermin like Hamas!

    Next thing he’ll be expected to be nice to all the gangs in America’s inner cities, and even buy their peace — or be criticized from the cesspool for that, too.

  • EEllis

    I’m mean if they are popular then everything is OK. Screw principals it’s popularity that should be the deciding factor!!

  • ChrisWWW

    I agree with Matthew Yglesias on this point:

    I think it’s perfectly reasonable for an American president to say that he wouldn’t have any diplomatic talks with Hamas as long as that’s Israel’s position as well — after all, what would they talk about? Hamas can’t make concessions to the United States nor is there much of anything the United States would concede to Hamas. So in that sense, Barack Obama’s refusal to expand his generous meetings policy to Hamas is both defensible policy and a good cheap talk way of saying something that “pro-Israel” folks like.

    But I don’t like that he either believes in or feels compelled to make these blanket statements about never negotiating.

  • JWeidner

    Clearly Hamas needs to create a political arm that can distance itself from the more violent aspects that Hamas itself espouses (vis a vis the IRA and Sinn Fein). Then there wouldn’t be any problem with negotiations – we were willing to engage and negotiate with Sinn Fein so long as the illusion of separation was maintained.

  • Holly_in_Cincinnati

    This is sheer ignorance and Hamas is disgusting. Nobody who can be considered a representative of the US should talk with Hamas.

  • rudi

    It’s not like ME experts didn’t warn Bush about the results of elections in Gaza and Palestine. Hamas won an elections that we were warned they would win. Maybe Maliki will help to put down Hamas after he fixes Basra.

  • runasim

    To me this smells like obeissance to the Jewish vote, trying to rebuild bridges after the Wright flap, as it pertained to anti-semitism. . I cut Jews a lot of slack, because I try to understand the emotional and historic aspect for them.
    But Obama? .It looks like ‘old politics’ comes in handy when it comes in handy.

    What happened to ‘I’ll talk to anybody’?

    How has not talking to Iran without pre-conditions worked out? They’re doing just fine without talking, and by now, I doubt they have much incentive to talk.
    Like with the Iranians, losing the leading role while you”re still strong may well lose the opportunity to influence, totally and, maybe, forever.

    No one should be so naive as to think that just talking, or negotiating, will solve the problem. But is is an opportunity to extend the sticks and the carrots that comprise avoiding catastrophe. If a catastrophe does come about, I fear it may be Israel’s That I would like to see avoided, above all.

    Obama gave a brilliant speech on race, when a controversy gave him the opportunity.
    I hoped to hear an equally brilliant speech on foreign relations., Carter having given him the opportunity to do so.
    His response is a huge disappointment!

  • elrod

    Never did I expect to see this post on The Moderate Voice. I guess we really do host lots of competing voices here.

    I actually agree with Holly here, even though we disagree on Israel a lot. Hamas is not a legitimate government. It’s a political movement that’s won parliamentary elections but it does not represent the full leadership of the Palestinian people. I do happen to agree with Obama’s “talk to our enemies” approach. But that only applies to legitimate heads of state with real bargaining power and not terrorist gangsters who have nothing to offer up for negotiation. If Hamas drops its core “destruction of Israel” rhetoric and becomes the head of state in Palestine then the situation changes. But for now, no reason to talk to Hamas.

  • shaun

    What a mess!

    I support Israel but I support the Palestinian people. I support Carter but I can see why people believe he should not engage with Hamas. I support Obama but cannot support him here. I support . . .

  • runasim

    ELROD made a legitimate point, about Hamas not representing a state.
    It’s a massive failure on the part of the Palestinians that, through all these decades, they have not managed to organize themselves into a workable and unifying political and economic system, even if not a geographical state.
    There are countless other legitimate arguments to be made reitererating what’s wrong with Hamas, and Palestinian leadership, as a whole.

    However, the violence continues while we debate these fine points, and the popularity of Hamas grows and grows. If meaningful action is delayed long enough, it could well be that Hamas would win the genreal election and take over the presidency, replacing Abbas with one of their own.

    With every passing day,, the chasm between Israel and the Palestinians widens. Israel can’t afford to wait until the chasm is so great that it ‘s iimpossible to avoid a catastropic confrontaton.

    I think the time for hiding behind argumentation is over. The time for bold action is already overdue.

  • GreenDreams

    I’ll repeat my comment from a previous post.

    Negotiation is tricky in the political season, as everyone prepares to pounce on every word said by anyone, especially candidates with a (D) after their names. But on the subject of negotiation, this oft-repeated meme is demonstrably off base:

    By negotiating with terrorists you legitimize terrorists, thus codifying the tactics they utilize.

    We negotiate with mass murderers, with kidnappers, with extortionists and yes, with terrorists. We do so because it saves lives, which should always trump any cute concept of “legitimizing” them. Give me a break. When the police negotiate to end a stand-off, no one accuses them of “appeasing” or “legitimizing”.

    Every negotiation is different, every situation unique, and taking a stand on the general concept of negotiating with people we don’t like, is foolish and narrow-minded.

    Negotiation is often a process of reaching for the least bad option, and to start from a rigid “we won’t negotiate” position reduces the options to exactly one: telling “terrorists” or criminals to go ahead and do whatever they’re going to do (with the subtext “then we’ll kill you”). And killing them doesn’t help, especially after they’ve done whatever they were not persuaded to reconsider (ie. through negotiation). Since we can’t reduce the growing number of terrorists with bullets, we need to be open to all options within our grasp.

    So Hamas. If we don’t negotiate for fear of “legitimizing” it, our option is to continue to do what isn’t working already.

  • DLS

    “What happened to ‘I’ll talk to anybody’?”

    Don’t you have any self-respect, not to mention principles, as another poster referred to?

    Israel *** OR *** the USA would be fully justififed in dumping lethal chemicals on the likes of Hamas and the scum in the Afghan-Pakistani border zone. The fake, worthless far-left whiners in the USA and the rest of the West who would be the first and loudest to complain are also scum who deserve little better if not worse treatment. [scowl]

  • DLS

    “What happened to ‘I’ll talk to anybody’?”

    Yeah — we need the cops in this country to apologize for “demeaning” criminals, and offer restitution, even…

  • GreenDreams

    WTF? DLS, I wasn’t defending Obama’s statement, if that’s what your last comments are to imply. And I’m certainly not saying cops should apologize. I was saying cops DO negotiate, governments DO negotiate, with all kinds of criminals and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a key tool in the toolchest.

    Get real for a minute. We’re not going to “dump lethal chemicals” on a civilian population in which Hamas or other terrorists are hiding, more than we already are, that is. If that’s what you’re suggesting, man, seek help.

    The point is that there’s no way to take out “Hamas” (as if it’s a sovereign state) and though they are evil criminals IMO, negotiation is still a legitimate tool to press for reining in the violence.

    As for “what happened to…” as the comments here so clearly show, no one dares advocate talking to Hamas. As I recall, Obama was referring to all the states in the Mideast, eg Iran, Syria, not to stateless criminal elements. So I don’t see anything contradictory in his counting out Hamas, though I still think negotiation may be able to make inroads where current approaches are not, and your suggested option is simply untenable. Did you really just question my principles and then advocate chemical warfare against the Palestinian people?

  • runasim

    “the USA would be fully justififed in dumping lethal chemicals on the likes of Hamas and the scum in the Afghan-Pakistani border zone”

    That’s the mirror image of Hamas feeling justified to lob shells into Israel and to use suicide bombers to kill.
    Like in the debate about torture, if both sides become equally bestial, then all justifications become equally null.

    The goal is to stop Hamas, not to become like them. .