Hamas Should Have Been Invited to Annapolis

  Nobody expected the Annapolis Middle East peace conference to have finally ended the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it was still quite a party. Just think of the networking and schmoozing opportunities. The Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was there, together … Read More

By / November 26, 2007


Nobody expected the Annapolis Middle East peace conference to have finally ended the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it was still quite a party. Just think of the networking and schmoozing opportunities. The Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was there, together with Mahmoud Abbas, president of Palestine. Egypt and Jordan sent delegations and Syria too, hoping to swap the Golan Heights for a peace deal. Even the Saudi Foreign minister, Saud Al-Faisal turned up, dolefully warning that he won't shake hands with the Israelis. At least not in public, but as the Washington Post reported, he took lengthy notes while Olmert spoke and even applauded. The only important Middle East government which was not there was Palestine's, for Hamas, which won the 2006 elections, was not invited.

And that is a mistake. Hamas should have been at the negotiating table.

Yes, that's right. Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood which calls for the destruction of Israel and its replacement with an Islamic state. amas, whose ‘despatchers', safe in the warrens of Jenin and Nablus, order confused teenagers wrapped in explosives and shrapnel to blow themselves to bits on Israeli buses. Hamas, Article of 22 of whose charter blames the Jews for the French and Communist revolutions, working through the "Freemasons, the Rotary Clubs and the Lions [sic]'.

And why should have Hamas have been invited? Firstly, because, like Mount Everest, Hamas is there, and it's not going away. However unsavoury its politics, and however bloody its terrorist pedigree, however deluded its charter, without Hamas' agreement – or rather the agreement of part of Hamas's leadership – no peace agreement will be possible in Israel/Palestine. And the way to achieve is not to isolate Hamas further, but to split it in two. How? By engaging the political realists within the organisation in the political and diplomatic process. By exploiting the growing tensions between the ideologues and pragmatists, that shape every political organisation, even those of radical Islamists who claim a divine mandate. By making Hamas leaders realise that it's time to dump all the nonsense about Jewish control of Rotary and Lions Clubs, put down their rockets and engage with the world. For isolation and quarantine is further boosting the radicals, making a long-term solution more unlikely.

Apart from the most die-hard hard-liners, many in the Hamas leadership know that there is little appetite for their vision of an Islamic regime among most Palestinians. Hamas won the elections not because Palestinians in Ramallah and Nablus are dreaming of a new Caliphate, but because the hideously corrupt and chronically inept Fatah could not deliver. Not jobs, not public services and not security. But neither can Hamas, as recent events in Gaza prove. Hamas' greatest ally in its takeover of Gaza, and the setting up of 'Hamastan' was not religion, or ideology, but geography. Gaza is isolated from the West Bank and the borders with both Israel and Egypt are closed. Even if he had the means and sufficient men, it was not possible for Mahmoud Abbas to move sufficient reinforcements to Gaza to defeat Hamas.

Commentators often refer to Hamas as though it was united around its charter. In fact there are three power centres – Damascus, the West Bank and Gaza – and at least four factions within Hamas. Khaled Mashal is the head of Hamas' political leadership and lives in exile in Damascus. Mashal is among the hardest of hard-liners, doubtless partly because Mossad agents tried to poison him in a botched operation in Amman in 1997, which almost destroyed the peace accords between Israel and Jordan. (He was saved only after Mossad handed the antidote to Jordanian intelligence officers).

Hamas' leader in Gaza is Ismail Haniyeh, who was Palestinian prime minister until Mahmoud Abbas sacked him this summer. Haniyeh is also regarded as a radical but the sheer fact of exercising political power in Palestine/Gaza, rather than issuing orders from Damascus, brings an inevitable realism, if not quite moderation. There are already tensions between Haniyeh and Hamas's military wing, Izz ad-Din Al-Qassam, which mounted the coup this summer that led to the Hamas takeover in Gaza. It may be that Mashal is giving the orders to the Hamas fighters from Damascus, rather than Haniyeh. Haniyeh has also called for dialogue with Fatah.

There are Hamas leaders in both Gaza and on the West Bank, perhaps even including Haniyeh, who see the reality of Israeli military power and understand, although they may not admit it publicly, that the Jewish state is not going anywhere. Except perhaps further into the Palestinian territories as the impasse continues. So who should have been invited to Annapolis? Ghazi Hamad, for one. Earlier this year Mr Hamad, a former spokesman for Mr Haniyeh, wrote an internal letter describing Hamas's takeover of Gaza as ‘a serious strategic mistake that burdened the movement with more than it can bear'. He criticised Hamas for reacting to events and lacking a proper political strategy. He later called for negotiations with Israel. Mr Hamad's reward for all this has been an instruction from his Hamas colleagues to shut up.

Mr Hamad's stand is notable partly because it is so rare. He is, after all, just one man. Hamas remains officially committed to its charter and the destruction of the State of Israel. But even Khaled Meshal knows that in the real world, that is not going to happen. And one man can make a difference, especially when he may speak for many, or at least is floating a new idea.

Back in 1973 Said Hammami, the London representative of the Palestinian Liberation Movement wrote a seminal article in The Times (of London). It called for a ‘just peace' and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza strip. Such arguments are now part of the political mainstream, in both Israel and Palestine, but were then revolutionary. Hammami was a brave visionary: in 1978 he was shot dead by a gunman from the renegade Palestinian group Abu Nidal.

There are precedents for bringing terrorist groups into the political process as a means of splitting them and defusing their destructive power. Northern Ireland is the most recent example, where the Irish Republican Army, or at least its political wing, Sinn Fein, is now part of the political solution rather than the military problem. Hamas has already reacted with fury to the Annapolis conference: stepping up its rhetoric against Fatah, threatening more attacks on Israel and denouncing in advance any agreements that may be reached. How different things might be if Hamas had been offered a seat at the table. Even if it was refused, the resulting internal splits and fissures between the realists and ideologues would have been most productive. To argue that Hamas should be brought into the peace process is not starry-eyed idealism or sappy liberalism. On the contrary, it is hard-headed realism.

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