Experts Question U.S. Policy on Hamas
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is being played out on an entirely new political landscape now that both Israel and the Palestinians have new governments. The Palestinian authority is in the hands of Hamas, which is designated a terrorist group by Washington. Today, officials from the United States, Europe, Russia and the U.N., are in New York to talk about what's next.
The U.S. and Israel say they will not engage with Hamas, until it renounces terrorism and recognizes Israel's right to exist. Some experts say that policy could do more harm than good.
NPR's Mike Shuster has more.
MIKE SHUSTER reporting:
President Bush stated his attitude toward Hamas bluntly in a speech last week to the American Jewish Committee.
(Soundbite of applause)
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Hamas has made it clear that they do not acknowledge the right of Israel to exist. And I've made it clear that so long as that's their policy, we'll have no contact with the leaders of Hamas.
SHUSTER: More than that, the U.S. and Israel are trying to starve Hamas of the revenues it needs to govern. Israel is withholding $50 million a month in taxes it collects for the Palestinians. The U.S. Treasury Department has taken steps to cut off banking worldwide for the Palestinians. This has left some 160,000 Palestinian teachers, hospital workers, and police without pay for over two months.
Henry Siegman of the Council on Foreign Relations says these policies are draconian.
Dr. HENRY SIEGMAN (Director, U.S.-Middle East Project; Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations): The calculation that what we are doing now, and what Israel is doing now, is likely to bring down Hamas is so completely irrational, so off base.
SHUSTER: Siegman is among a small handful of Middle East experts who are critical of the current U.S. stance toward Hamas. Whether U.S. policy is meant to force Hamas to moderate its views, or to cause it to fail, the critics say this policy is counterproductive, and will ultimately hurt both Israel and the United States.
The last six years of violence have changed the political picture fundamentally. The idea of a greater Israel, encompassing Gaza and much of the West Bank, is now dead psychologically and politically. And the conflict has left both the Israelis and Palestinians skeptical that a real peace agreement is within reach.
At the moment, says Robert Malley, a former White House advisor on the Middle East now with the International Crisis Group, both the Israelis and Palestinians are pursuing their own unilateral agendas.
Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (Program Director, Middle East and North Africa, International Crisis Group): A Palestinian government that wants to put law and order back and restore some kind of credible government on its end. And an Israeli government that wants to initiate its unilateral disengagement. Neither side wants to talk to the other. Neither side wants to negotiate with the other. And neither side believes in a comprehensive agreement.
It's an objective convergence of interests, right now. And that can be exploited only if all parties--Israel, Hamas and the United States--agree to subordinate their ideological principles to more pragmatic interests.
SHUSTER: So far, none has taken that step. And the new governments of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh regard each other over a great divide. The policy of immovable hostility to Hamas will not bring about any positive results, says Aaron David Miller, a former long-time State Department negotiator for the Middle East.
Mr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center; Former State Department Official): If the strategy to force Hamas to fail is based on the notion that Palestinian public will then turn to an alternative, or somehow blame Hamas for that failure, the reality is that Palestinians will always be angrier at the Israelis and at the international community, including the United States, than they will be at their own leadership.
SHUSTER: Possibly with tragic results. Right now, Israel has returned to a condition of relative calm not seen since the summer of 2000, before the second intifada erupted. The cafes and hotels are full. Foreign investment is rising. If Hamas' experiment in government is forced to fail economically, it won't end there says Robert Malley.
Mr. MALLEY: And they may well revert to full-scale violence. And let's not forget that Hamas has, more or less, held to a truce or ceasefire for the last year. They may be tempted, even though I don't think it's at all their first choice, to get back to violence if they see that their political experience is heading to failure.
SHUSTER: So why not take a fresh look at Hamas, says Henry Siegman, to see what the real possibilities for change are? Siegman says Hamas has more legitimacy among the Palestinian population than its predecessor, Fatah, did.
Dr. SIEGMAN: Their entering the political process is a welcome opportunity; and, for the first time, presents possibilities for a peace agreement that were simply impossible with a Palestinian authority that was run by Fatah.
SHUSTER: Still, Siegman, as well as Robert Malley and Aaron Miller, see the value for both sides of an extended period, several years, of informal coexistence. Because the Israel-Palestinian conflict is, above all, one of proximity, coexistence without violence could bring its own benefits, says Miller, who is now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
Mr. MILLER: It is not, over time, unthinkable that the Israelis could grant, and however heretical this may sound, some time and space for Hamas, as long as it continues not to pick up the gun--the kind of breathing room to allow it to carry out its unilateral agenda, deliver economically, control the streets of Gaza and reform. And also allow Israel to carry out its unilateral agenda.
SHUSTER: There's also a deeper reason why the United States should not work to undermine Hamas, says Robert Malley. It would send a signal to moderate Islamic political forces across the region that the U.S. is not really committed to democracy.
Mr. MALLEY: We have to be careful that through our policies we don't, in fact, empower people who are more radical than those we are currently trying to undermine.
SHUSTER: The history of the Middle East, Malley points out, is filled with examples of the U.S. shunning one group, only to empower another far more hostile to U.S. interests.
Mike Shuster, NPR News.
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