The recent appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East is
no doubt a positive sign of President Obama s commitment to the region, signaling that there will be immediate and direct American involvement in the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. Mitchell, who was the architect of Ireland s Good Friday Agreement, is largely seen as an honest broker and a tough negotiator. He is a firm advocate of diplomacy, yet his success will ultimately depend on the authority he is given to accomplish his mission. The full backing of the president and involvement of Secretary of State Clinton must be part and parcel of any outcome Mitchell can procure.
One of the most urgent issues that Mr. Mitchell must grapple with is what to do with Hamas, especially in the wake of the Gaza war. There are many right-of-center Israelis who believe that Hamas-as a terrorist organization sworn to Israel s destruction-is simply irredeemable and must therefore be destroyed. These people are pursuing an unachievable goal, trying to obscure a reality while loosing sight of Hamas changing circumstances and political fortunes. In fact, the same thing has been said about the Palestine Liberation Organization, but over the years the PLO has changed with the circumstances and time has come to choose a political solution rather than continuing senseless resistance.
The argument that unlike the secular PLO, Hamas ideology is religiously based and is not likely to change must be measured against Hamas ultimate choice, which is political survival. Hamas is a grass-roots movement and will not die a natural death. As the Gaza war has amply demonstrated, even Israel s colossal military power as compared to Hamas has its limitations as Hamas is deeply embedded in the civilian community. They have become part of the Palestinian social fabric, especially in Gaza, and have shown tremendous capacity for clean governance and realism. They want to stay in power and ideally seek to capture power in the West Bank as well, but they also understand their limitations. The Gaza war may have jolted Hamas to realize that the political tide and events on the ground are mounting against them and that a change in direction may be necessary to remain politically vital.
The Gaza war has caused a serious split between Hamas political leadership in Damascus, which has advocated further resistance, and the leaders in Gaza who suffered the brunt of the Israeli onslaught and were looking to end the Israeli incursion as quickly as possible. Other than protesting against the Israeli military campaign, no country, including Iran, has come to Hamas aid, save sending some money, a fact that might just awaken Hamas to a painful realization. Egypt, who is determined not to allow an off-shoot government of the Muslim Brotherhood as a neighbor made no secret of its support of the Israeli assault and put insurmountable pressure on Hamas to accept a ceasefire on its own terms. In addition, Egypt continued to exert pressure on Hamas to establish a unity government with Fatah. The recent meeting between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority s representatives in Cairo offers a first positive sign, and the prospect of a reinvigorated political process.
Saudi Arabia, which is weary of Iran s ambition to become the region s hegemon, has been critical of Hamas close ties to Tehran, accusing it of undermining the national security interests of the Arab Sunni states. The Saudis are exerting quiet pressure on Hamas to abandon its Iranian sponsors and come back to the Arab fold. Adding to this mix is the fact that the Palestinians in the West Bank remained restrained throughout the Gaza war, sending another ominous signal to Hamas of their determination to abandon violent resistance in favor of a political solution. Concerted efforts led by the United States, the EU and Israel to interdict shipments of weapons by air, sea, and land through tunnels to deprive Hamas from rearming will likely add to the pressure on Hamas to modify its long-term strategy. The question is how much of this leaves room for influencing Hamas direction. The answer certainly lies in the level and the consistency of involvement of the US, EU, the Arab states and Israel in building a new structure of peace that will include Hamas based on the changing reality in Gaza and Hamas real options.
Hamas cannot be ignored. Once it joins the PA in a unity government and potentially agrees to embrace the Arab Peace Initiative (which is tantamount to recognizing Israel) and as long as the ceasefire is holding, the United States should then reconsider its position toward Hamas. Once the US opens up a direct dialogue with Syria, Hamas may feel marginalized and consider joining the political process in some capacity. In Ireland, Mr. Mitchell stressed the need to talk to and deal with any radical movements in order to resolve a conflict.
He absolutely believes that one must talk to the enemy and spare no effort to reach a political agreement. That does not mean giving in to Hamas demands or talking to them at a presidential level; it only means that all avenues must be explored before giving up on finding a peaceful solution.
Mitchell will be duty bound to find out precisely where Hamas stands, and he should be able to do so as he sees fit including possible direct engagement.
During this period the United States and Israel must take extraordinary measures to reward moderation and enhance the stature of the PA. This is something that Israel is more willing to do now especially because of the calm that the PA has been able to maintain throughout the Gaza war.
Indeed, peace between Israel and the Palestinians based on a two-state solution must be comprehensive, and it will not come to pass unless it includes both Gaza with Hamas in it and the West Bank.
Alon Ben-Meir is senior fellow at the Center for Global Affairs, NYU. He teaches courses on the Middle East and international negotiations.