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Inviting Hamas to Annapolis Was Not the Answer

Adam LeBor has joined one of the great foreign policy fashions of the moment in calling on the United States and Israel to diplomatically "engage" Hamas. He writes that "without Hamas' agreement — or rather the agreement of part of Hamas's leadership — no peace agreement will be possible in Israel/Palestine." To his credit, LeBor has located the central question at hand, but to his detriment he doesn't seem to realize the implications of it. That question, as Bernard Lewis put it a few days ago, is the following:

"What is the conflict about?" There are basically two possibilities: that it is about the size of Israel, or about its existence.

If the issue is about the size of Israel, then we have a straightforward border problem, like Alsace-Lorraine or Texas. That is to say, not easy, but possible to solve in the long run, and to live with in the meantime.

If, on the other hand, the issue is the existence of Israel, then clearly it is insoluble by negotiation. There is no compromise position between existing and not existing, and no conceivable government of Israel is going to negotiate on whether that country should or should not exist.

LeBor, like every engagement fellow-traveler, cannot bring himself to answer the question of whether the conflict is about Israel's borders or its existence, and so LeBor's argument is based on the premise that a "peace agreement" is in the offing, just so long as skillful diplomats can finagle Hamas's consent. LeBor proposes that western diplomats can divide and conquer the organization: "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."

There is extraordinarily little evidence that such tensions exist, or if they do that they are susceptible to wedge politics. There is an immense paradox to this argument, which simultaneously acknowledges that the isolation of Hamas has begun to create internal division in the organization, but insists that exactly the tactics that are creating such divisions should immediately be ceased. If isolation is grinding the organization down, why stop now? Why not wait another six months, or a year, or however long it takes for Hamas to be truly in internal disarray before attempting diplomacy? In a year's time, wouldn't western diplomats have a great deal more leverage on the organization — and wouldn't that fact make diplomacy, which the engagers say they prefer, all the most promising?

But I'm not so sanguine on the idea that Hamas is susceptible to internal breakdown, or that that is happening right now. The details that LeBor provides in favor of this view are either incomplete, misleading, or simply laughable. He notes that Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, "has called for dialogue with Fatah," accepting Haniyeh's honesty at face value, and never explaining what such a statement has to do with Hamas agreeing to stop its holy war against Israel. It was just over the summer that Haniyeh's organization led a savage military campaign against Fatah immediately after agreeing, in Mecca, to form a unity government with Fatah. Does LeBor really believe that Haniyeh is a serious adherent to the spirit of dialogue? Or might it be possible that people like Haniyeh advocate diplomacy only when it suits their propaganda purposes, and have no intention of keeping their word?

LeBor offers up Ghazi Hamad as the leader of moderate Hamas because of an internal critique he once wrote about the takeover of Gaza. LeBor didn't mention some other words Hamad said recently: "Israel should be wiped from the face of the Earth. It is an animal state that recognises no human worth. It is a cancer that should be eradicated." The reality of Hamas is that it is thoroughly intolerant of dissent, both within its own organization and in the territory it controls, and operates with an extraordinarily high level of ideological and strategic cohesion.

There is unfortunately not a single example in the history of Hamas in which the organization has permanently moderated its strategy or tactics in response to diplomatic pressure or engagement. LeBor is betting on a fantasy.

Here's another bit of wishful thinking: "For isolation and quarantine is further boosting the radicals, making a long-term solution more unlikely." A comforting thought, but there is really no evidence for this: public opinion polling in Gaza since June shows a significant downward trend in popular support for Hamas. I might also add that the most radical period in Palestinian history came immediately on the heels of the most engagement-heavy period in Palestinian history — the Madrid and Oslo process and then the second Intifada. The period of 1991-2004 makes a very strong case that excessive western engagement on behalf of the Palestinian cause actually radicalized Palestinian opinion by whetting their appetite for victory.

LeBor continues: "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." There is perhaps a slight bit of truth to this, but there was another much more significant reason why Hamas was so popular in January, 2006: Israel had disengaged from Gaza five months earlier, and the Palestinian people credited Hamas's "resistance" with having forced the Jews out, and duly rewarded them at the ballot box (and for the record, I supported, and still do, the Gaza disengagement).

There was, by the way, a non-Islamist, anti-corruption Palestinian party running in the 2006 election, the Third Way party of Salam Fayyad (the current PA prime minster) and Hanan Ashrawi. It won — drum roll, please — 2.4 percent of the vote. Apologies, friends, but the idea that the Palestinian people voted for Hamas only out of a sense of disgust with corruption is a naive myth, and if we ever wish for the Palestinian electorate to change who it votes for, we cannot make its affection for Islamic imperialism cost-free. In the same way that the citizens of other democracies must live with government they elect, the citizens of Gaza must now live with Hamas. If you believe in Palestinian democracy, you must also believe in holding Palestinians accountable for their electoral choices.

I don't mean in all of this to single out LeBor for criticism. He is articulating a set of views about the conflict that are immensely popular among many westerners, and even among many Israelis. There are a couple of other good reasons for not "engaging" with Hamas, and they are concerned with the wider western effort at encouraging political moderation in the Arab world. The Bush administration, at least before it handed the Israeli-Arab conflict over to the State Department, has been attempting to put its weight behind the idea that radicalism will get the Arabs nowhere — that it will not cause America to support terrorist grievances; that it will not cause America to pressure Israel for concessions; and that it will not win American diplomatic attention. As part of this strategy, America has chosen to support Arab moderates, such as Mahmoud Abbas, who, while problematic, at least do not today publicly call for Israel's destruction. What will be the lesson for the Arab world if the United States undermines the political salience of the moderates by lavishing attention on the radicals? What will become of our effort to bolster Mahmoud Abbas if we suddenly begin conferring legitimacy on Hamas?

One of the larger, subterranean, problems in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the West has made Palestine a thoroughly disincentive-free zone, in which there are scarcely few examples in which bad behavior, no matter how depraved, antagonistic, or perfidious, is ever punished. The rocket fire from Gaza that is rained down on Israel on a daily basis could be ceased, for example, if the UN and EU made their lavish aid to Gaza contingent on a cessation of Hamas's attacks. It was thus refreshing, at the height of the last intifada, when the Bush administration finally gave up on Yasser Arafat after the Israeli navy intercepted the Karine A smuggling 50 tons of weapons and explosives to the Palestinian Authority. A clear message was sent: America will not help terrorists. That message must continue to be conveyed, consistently and inflexibly. Inviting Hamas to peace conferences that it openly disdains, that it will only use for propaganda purposes, and that will demonstrate to the Palestinian people that terrorism wins an audience with the American president is no way to make peace.

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