By David K. Shipler
It’s nice for Egypt’s new government, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, that the United States has handcuffed itself by refusing to deal directly with Hamas. And perhaps it’s just as well, since Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has more influence with Hamas than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would. Plus, he gets to play a pivotal role in the eternally exasperating Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lucky him.
But it’s not so great for American interests that the “terrorist” label, which the U.S. government has imposed on Hamas, carries such a broad set of taboos as to restrict Washington’s flexibility in a crisis.
Hamas employs terrorism, obviously—witness today’s bus bombing in Tel Aviv, the random rocketing of Israeli civilians—but it was also elected to govern Gaza, which Israel voluntarily left to the Palestinian residents in 2005. Denying Hamas the symbol of legitimacy it would gain through contact with American officials may be morally satisfying, but it has about as much impact on reality as the U.S. embargo of Cuba.
There was an opportunity when Hamas came to power in 2007 to swallow hard, defy Israel’s demand that the group be isolated, and come to terms with the unpleasant fact that our favored candidates don’t always win elections. We have done that with Egypt now, because Egypt is too big and important for there to be any other choice. And if Islamists gain elsewhere in the Arab world, as they are likely to, we will need to suck it up, tough it out, just deal, or be increasingly isolated ourselves.
In garnering diplomatic symbols, the leaders of Hamas look pretty clever right up to the moment they get themselves blown up. Taking the measure of the Arab Spring, they provoked this clash with Israel. Surely they’ve had enough experience to know that Israel wouldn’t sit on its hands while rockets rained down. So, timing it well, they triggered an Israeli onslaught to test Egypt’s post-dictatorship and to mobilize charades of support from elsewhere—Qatar, Turkey, the Arab League, whose members would always rather focus on the problems of Palestinians over the problems of their own citizens.
Never before has Gaza been visited by such legions of Arab leaders, who have now conferred on Hamas that coveted emblem of legitimacy so assiduously withheld by Washington. This probably diminishes the allure of U.S. recognition for Hamas, but it doesn’t eliminate American leverage, should the Obama administration be creative enough to engage Hamas in hard-nosed bargaining.
Contrary to what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and most of his countrymen would undoubtedly say, direct American contact with Hamas would not be bad for Israel. It might not be good, either, but it certainly wouldn’t worsen the situation, so it’s worth a try.
As comments in the last week indicate, Israel still has a geopolitically old-fashioned notion about military deterrence. It has long exacted brutal punishment on neighboring countries that fail to prevent their territories from being used as launching pads for terrorism. As a result, Jordan and Egypt had quiet borders with Israel for years before they had formal peace treaties. The Syrian frontier with Israel has also been mostly frozen by a tense peace for decades, despite the lack of a treaty. After a couple of shells were fired into Israeli territory recently, the Israelis send a couple of reminders back into Syria to reinforce the quiet.
But the strategy works only where a government rules and has a stake it wants to preserve. It was ineffective against Lebanon following the country’s civil war, when the central government in Beirut could no longer reach into the southern border areas, essentially ceding control to local militias and, eventually, the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Nor does Hamas seem to regard its stake in Gaza as worthy of defending by keeping the peace. The task of Israel and the international community, including the United States and the Arab world, is to help create in Gaza a stake worth preserving. It is hard to see how the U.S. can do that without engaging with the nominal government there, no matter how reprehensible. Otherwise, we will be depending wholly on Egypt’s President Morsi, who just helped negotiate his first cease-fire. He may get plenty of practice at this.
Finally, here is an interesting bit of history: Islamist movements in Gaza were not always anathema to Israel. In March 1981, I was told by the Israeli military governor there, Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Segev, that he had been instructed to give Israeli government funds to mosques and religious schools as counterweights to the secular P.L.O. The reason was that the P.L.O. advocated a Palestinian state, an aspiration that, at the time, Israel saw as deeply threatening. (He got in trouble with his superiors for telling me this.)
Segev had been Israel’s military attache in Iran before the Islamic revolution, and he clearly believed that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Those mosques and religious schools became the fertile ground of the Muslim Brotherhood, and then of Hamas. So here’s another aphorism he might have considered: Be careful what you wish for.