The issue of whether or not to engage Hamas boils down to the following question: would such engagement help moderate the organization, or would it simply improve Hamas’ chances of dominating the Palestinian political scene and encourage extremism throughout the Middle East? For now, any engagement that goes beyond achieving de-escalation in Gaza would serve to bolster Hamas at the expense of those working toward a two-state solution.
Those who argue that engagement would bring about a significant change in Hamas’ policies proceed from a faulty assumption regarding the way the organization thinks. Hamas does not reject the two-state solution and engage in terrorism because it fails to understand what is objectionable about this approach, or because it is unaware that this contradicts the basic values and behavioral norms of members of the international community. Its behavior is based on a cold, rational cost-benefit calculation. This calculus relates to Hamas’ domestic political goals, the regional dimension and its relations with Israel. Like any political party, its primary goal is to gain and hold onto power, in this case within Palestinian society.
In any engagement, Hamas—like any rational political actor—will seek to maximize its benefits and minimize its costs. It will use any international dialogue it can achieve to send one overriding message to its local, regional and global constituencies alike: namely, that it can maintain its positions regarding the peace process, Israel and the use of violence, while at the same time gaining international legitimacy. It will argue that it provides at least as many benefits as its secular opponents, without making any compromises. Engaging Hamas without the terms of engagement being clear and without it first paying the political price of admission to the international club—particularly by accepting the two-state solution and disarming—amounts to a political free lunch. As recently demonstrated by President Jimmy Carter’s meetings with Hamas, it will pocket and cash the gains from cost-free engagement without feeling any incentive to change.
On the domestic front, Hamas seeks exclusive dominance over Palestinian political life. Since the Oslo Accords, it has consistently used terrorism to undermine the peace process. Hamas has also exploited the lack of results from this process to undermine its main rival, the secular nationalist Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and discredit the PLO’s political platform of statehood through negotiations. It is no coincidence that in the numerous so-called “Palestinian national unity” talks, Hamas was unwilling to compromise on its anti-two state platform or to relinquish its arms and militias. These are strategic assets that Hamas wants to keep in reserve to use when it sees fit. This was vividly demonstrated in Gaza last June and more recently when Hamas led the breach of the Rafah border with Egypt.
At the regional level, Hamas is part of the larger trend of revolutionary political Islam which represents the main challenge to pro-Western regimes in the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood and other similar organizations in Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere are looking to see how far Hamas can push the envelope. Similarly, pro-U.S. Arab governments are watching nervously to see whether the international community will be wittingly or unwittingly complicit in undermining Palestinian leaders like President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Any hint of international legitimization of an unmodified Hamas will cause the various regional players to draw their own lessons.
In terms of relations with Israel, even the most pragmatic Hamas voices have stated a willingness only to accept Israel as a matter of transient practical necessity. They speak only of a temporary truce that will not bring about a permanent end to the conflict. This might not be a matter of immediate concern for those interested in short-term security stabilization, which could explain the Israeli public’s interest in engaging Hamas. However, the long-term implications in terms of regional normalization and stabilization, as well as in terms of encouraging extremism and irredentism, are problematic.
Unconditional political engagement with Hamas would send a myriad of unhelpful messages. To the Palestinian public, the message would be that extremism pays while moderation does not. To Arab Islamist parties, the message would be that terrorism and violent coups will not only be tolerated, they will be rewarded. To pro-Western Arab governments, the message would be that they cannot rely on Western support. To Israel, the message would be that it is doomed to live in a sea of hostility and that the best it can hope for are short periods of calm that punctuate a future of perpetual conflict.
Even if Hamas does gain international legitimacy, it will not go away. The question of what to do with Hamas and its considerable capacity to play the role of a spoiler remains. In the long term, primacy within the Palestinian political arena will be determined above all by the outcome of the peace process: if negotiations produce a viable Palestinian state, moderates will reap the political rewards. If negotiations fails, Hamas will be able to claim that its platform of “resistance” is the only avenue left for achieving Palestinian national aspirations.
To get to a final peace agreement, the Annapolis process has to be re-energized and re-focused. As progress continues to be made by the Palestinian and Israeli negotiators on the large permanent status issues, visible changes must begin to occur on the ground. The Palestinian public needs to feel that Israel is serious about peacemaking and that the moderates are able to produce results. In particular, a settlement freeze is essential to restore faith in the peace process, while improvement in the daily lives and freedom of movement for Palestinians will help maintain a sense of hope. For its part, the Palestinian national movement needs to start rebuilding its own credibility in the fields of good governance and the imposition of law and order. Efforts undertaken by Prime Minister Fayyad in these fields are critical. If inefficiency, corruption and security chaos are not rooted out, and if Fatah—as the leader of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority—continues to be seen as a stumbling block in the way of reform, Hamas will continue to have public appeal.
In the short term, however, it could be possible to reach security stabilization with Hamas without paying too high a political price. A de-escalation package brokered by an Arab country that has pre-existing relations with Hamas (a role being played effectively by Egypt today) and an end to the siege of Gaza through the reopening of the Gaza crossing points under Palestinian Authority control, can help avoid— for a period of time, at least—a deeply destabilizing all out military confrontation in Gaza.
Once a measure of calm is achieved, political capital and energy should be focused not on the futile and counterproductive strategy of courting and rewarding Hamas for free. Rather, those who want to see long-term stability and the victory of moderation in the Middle East should focus on ensuring the success of the peace process and securing the establishment of a Palestinian state to live alongside Israel. Once that is achieved, Hamas will have to face the real challenge of either accepting the terms of the new political reality or consigning itself to irrelevance.