Thoughts on Reorganizing the Hamas Problem


My New America Foundation/Middle East Task Force colleague Daniel Levy, a former Israeli government negotiator who was at the table whenever any key progress was made in Israel-Palestine negotiations and then wrote the Israeli draft of the well-known Geneva Initiative, believes that there is no credible path forward on Israel-Palestine issues and the broader Middle East without generating a formula that ends the isolation of Hamas and tries to get all stakeholders in the eventual outcome to wrestle towards a new and stable equilibrium — that will hopefully leave a secure Israel and a viable Palestinian state.
But the Israel-rejecting Hamas that has become in the eyes of many aggrieved Palestinians, sick of Occupation and its toxic dynamics, a legitimate vehicle for their interests in fighing the Israeli forces and expansion of Jewish settlements is not an easy organizational creature to deal with — whether one wanted to or not.
This problem of not knowing who to speak to even if one wanted to was also part of the IRA problem in negotiations between Northern Ireland and England.
Levy, though, has an interesting idea. Get Hamas to look more like the IRA.
I submit it here for consideration because it is an approach I had not thought of before — and may be something that Presidential Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell may be considering (though he won’t be talking to Hamas of course, not directly). I just know that a lot of folks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt follow this blog — and of course Daniel Levy’s writing and thinking.
From The Guardian today:

Mitchell may have already spoken to Hamas on an earlier mission. He visited Gaza and there is speculation that Hamas representatives were present at some of the meetings.
Daniel Levy, who worked for the Israeli government and was involved in the various peace initiatives, said: “The issue, certainly at this stage is not one of US direct engagement with Hamas, but a recognition – even if undeclared – that Hamas will have to be brought into the process, either in the context of internal Palestinian reconciliation or in their own right.”
In Northern Ireland, a distinction was drawn between the political wing of the Republican movement, Sinn Fein, and its military wing, the IRA. The same might be done with Hamas’s political wing and its armed militia, the Izz-Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, Levy said.

I think that the isolation of Hamas needs to end to if we are going to get to serious negotiations that produce any different endgame — but talking to Hamas and appeasing them are different matters.
We will see what form of engagement George Mitchell organizes in the region and which proxies he works through in dealing with Hamas — but it’s time to realize that the notion that we can prescribe a winner in a Palestinian civil war or that we can choose the winners over the losers in Palestine without undermining the winner is folly.
This approach of promoting a Sinn Fein like approach to dealing with Hamas deserves some discussion.
Mitchell knows this, but I fear many around Obama are advising him to turn the much weakened Mahmoud Abbas into a latter day political winner with American gifts showered on him to trickle down to his people. The time for that approach is long gone.
— Steve Clemons


13 comments on “Thoughts on Reorganizing the Hamas Problem

  1. Kathleen G says:

    S Markom I have never heard one Hamas leader say any such thing. Although I understand it is in their charter which I have not read. I have heard numerous Hamas members demand that Israel get out of the illegally occupied territories, stop building the “wall, security fence, barrier” on Internationally recognized Palestinian lands.
    I have heard Ariel Sharon, settlers and Jewish students at Ohio State University say that all Palestinians should be bussed to Jordan.
    Ariel Sharon and many other Israeli leaders have supported the persistent growth and development of illegal settlements which have been a major thorn in the side of any agreements.
    A few quotes by Israel’s leaders
    “Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist. Not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis; and Kefar Yehushua in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not a single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.”
    — David Ben Gurion, quoted in The Jewish Paradox, by Nahum Goldmann, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978, p. 99.
    “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people… It is not as if we came and threw them out and took their country. They didn’t exist.”
    — Golda Meir, statement to The Sunday Times, 15 June, 1969.


  2. Kathleen G says:

    Former President Jimmy Carter on the Diane Rehm show yesterday discussing the Mitchell appointment, Jimmy’s new book and the situation in the Gaza


  3. S. Markom says:

    “But the Israel-rejecting Hamas”
    You have it backward. It is Hamas that has always rejected Israel’s right to even exist.
    “Levy, though, has an interesting idea. Get Hamas to look more like the IRA.”
    The problem with this argument is very simple. The IRA wanted the UK out of Northern Ireland. Hamas has already shown and stated that they don’t simply want Israel out of Gaza they don’t want Israel to exist at all.
    If Mitchell’s approach is to look at Hamas as an IRA movement then he have lost before he begins.


  4. Steve Clemons says:

    JohnH — good point. I should have said much, much weakened President Abbas. Interesting points all round. steve


  5. JohnH says:

    It’s difficult knowing where to start with this “analysis” of the “Hamas problem.” Usually I’m a big fan of Daniel Levy, but the thinking here is just too bizarro.
    Finding out who to talk to in Hamas is a manufactured problem. If you need to talk to them, just let them convene their elected government and select representatives for Mitchell to talk to. Plus the representatives would have plenty of legitimacy from the Palestinian side, particularly those elected representatives who have spent years rotting in Israeli jails.
    Even more bizarre are those who “are advising [Obama] to turn the much weakened Mahmoud Abbas.”
    Much weakened? Excuse me!?! His term in office expired on January 9. Maybe those advisors trying to prop up Abbaas would also think it appropriate for the Israeli government to keep talking to the “much weakened” George Bush when it comes to negotiating with the US.


  6. Greg P says:

    Just to clarify — wrote that quickly — I agree with most of your post.
    I’m just very pessimistic about the upcoming election. It really is looking like the ‘nutball right’ party might outpoll Labor, which is indicative of just how far the whole political spectrum has shifted.


  7. Dan Kervick says:

    OK, here is the Kervick Plan.
    If, for political reasons, Hamas can’t be a participant in direct talks with the US government and its envoy, then we need to organize a process that excludes *both* Palestinian factions *and* the Israelis, and that isn’t so reliant on US mediation. As I have suggested in the past, what is needed at this point in this interminable conflict is not another negotiation-based peace process, but rather a binding international resolution developed by everyone in the world *besides* the two warring parties. No bazaar; no horsetrading. Instead we rely on international law, order, and justice, and the firm determination of the community of nations. To be blunt, what we need now is for the Israelis and the Palestinians to be made to sit in the corner and wait: Likud, Hamas, Kadima, Fatah, Meretz, the Palestinian Authority – all of them must be made to sit still wait.
    Here are the needed steps:
    1. Organize a special commission under UN and Security Council auspices, a UN Special Commission for a Final Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
    2. Conduct a series of commission meetings and hearings in the region at a permanent commission headquarters in a neutral country – most likely in Cairo or Amman.
    3. Make it clear at the outset that this is not a negotiation of any kind, but a process of fact-finding, deliberation and adjudication through which the international community, guided by the Security Council, intends to develop a plan and implementation policy for the enduring pacification of the region.
    4. At the outset of the process, it will be necessary to freeze the facts on the ground in place. No settlement expansion for Israel, not even for the purposes of “natural growth”; no arms smuggling for Hamas. UN troops should be brought in to police the situation in the occupied territories and Gaza, and maintain the freeze.
    5. Ban Ki-Moon, or an appointed Special Commissioner, can invite statements and presentations from all interested parties, including Hamas. If the United States representative feels compelled to be absent from the sessions at which the Hamas representatives provide testimony, so be it. But since the point of the sessions is to acquire evidence, not negotiate, there should be no objection in principle to taking evidence from Hamas. The US would not be negotiating with terrorists.
    6. Following the hearings, which should be public and broadcast, the special commissioners should retire along with the regular UN representatives from Security Council members into private meetings to hammer out the most workable plan. It will be understood that the implementation will eventually require the Palestinians’ top Arab and Muslim allies to take tough steps toward the Palestinians, and require the US and other Israeli allies to take tough steps with the Israelis.
    7. A consensus having been reached, present the plan to the world in a united front, and pass the plan through the Security Council. We should expect this plan to be highly detailed, and leave very little room for negotiated details. It should attempt to settle borders down to the neighborhood level. And what details remain to be resolved should by resolved through a quasi-judicial process established as part of the plan, not a bilateral negotiation.
    8. Bring the result to the parties, now representing the unanimous and fixed determination of the international community, speaking with one voice. While I’m sure some pleasant diplomatic language can be found, the idea is to *impose* this plan on the parties. Establish benchmarks, timetables and *sanctions* to be imposed on either party, by the entire international community, for failure to comply. Recall we are talking about very small territories and populations. If the international community is truly united behind implementation, the contending parties will have little choice but to comply.
    In artistic training, people learn to adjust their vision and shift attention from positive to negative space with a change of gestalt. The chief problem with this conflict for so long has not been the parties, located in a relatively small piece of positive space that is the obsessive center of everyone’s attention. The problem is with *everybody else* in the vast negative international space that surrounds it. The world outside the conflict is riven by divisions, distrust and intrigues on this issue, and an absence of diplomatic consensus, clarity and precision. This despite the fact that almost all other countries have bigger fish to fry. Let us make this international arena the new positive space and reorient our attention. It is time for the international community, grounded in the UN Charter, to summon the will to do the job is was meant to do: promote global peace and security.
    Barack Obama is a constitutional lawyer, and apparently an internationalist. He should break the habit of addressing this issue in the American business style, like everything is about the art of the deal. He should stop thinking like a corporate CEO or mediator, and start thinking like a judge.


  8. Paul Norheim says:

    Thanks for the link, Greg.
    However, it doesn`t make my arguments re. the motives behind
    Obama`s actions and lack of actions invalid.
    BTW: when Rabin was persuaded to participate in negotiations
    leading to the Oslo agreement, people argued that having a
    hard liner on board was better then having someone more
    inclined to compromise. As a general rule, however, this
    wisdom is discredited by the government of Ariel Sharon, as
    well as the government of Netanyahu in the 90`s (not to speak
    of the assassination of Rabin).
    The only thing one can hope for if Netanyahu wins the election,
    it could create a rift between Israel and America (and Europe).
    But I am pessimistic.


  9. Greg P says:

    There’s very little chance that Ehud Barak would come out in a position to lead a coalition. If it’s not Netanyahu, it would be Livni. In a recent poll, the entreme-right Yisrael Beitenu party (Avigdor Lieberman et al) actually outpolled Labor. The whole political spectrum seems to have shifted right.
    Israel opposition candidate Netanyahu still leads in polls


  10. Paul Norheim says:

    I wrote the following comment under a post about Obama
    talking to Al-Arabiya, but I hope you`ll forgive me for posting it
    here as well – it suits this context better:
    What are the hopes that Obama really means change
    when he says change?
    On the minus side:
    1) his talk about an “undivided Jerusalem” and his walking on
    fours together with Hillary during the AIPAC conference last
    2) his selection of pro Israelis to central positions in his
    3) his roaring silence during the bombing of Gaza.
    On the plus side:
    1) Mitchell;
    2) his general inclination to talk to adversaries;
    3) the recent rumors in the Guardian about establishing secret
    channels to talk to Hamas (one person close to Obama said that
    if this is correct, they would not announce it publicly; and later
    these rumors were denied).
    Not much substantial on the plus side? Perhaps not, but I would
    give his inclination to talk to adversaries some weight.
    We often seem to forget the significance and risks of the
    coming Israeli election for Obama. If Netanyahu becomes the
    next Israeli prime minister, it`s bye bye to ANY possible results
    during Obama`s first term. He would be confronted with
    Netanyahu`s “natural growth of settlements” on one side, and
    Hamas on the other side.
    If Netanyahu wins, it may have three (positive?) side effects:
    1) He may be so openly arrogant and violent that it may cause
    a divorce between Israel and Fatah;
    2) eventually perhaps resulting in bringing Fatah and Hamas a
    bit closer to each other;
    3) it could also make the extremely close relationship between
    Israel and USA considerably more difficult to maintain, which is
    a good thing for both countries in the long run.
    But for Barack Obama, Netanyahu would certainly represent
    ruin, undermining any possible policy in his first term. Nobody
    can be absolutely sure of Obama`s intentions at the moment.
    But whatever his thoughts or strategy – the most important
    thing right now would be to avoid saying or doing ANYTHING
    that may interfere in the Israeli elections in a way that may be
    favorable to Netanyahu. This probably includes mentioning the
    Israeli occupation, settlements, invasion of Gaza, even the
    killing of children and women (and talking to al Jazeera).
    Netanyahu is Obama`s nemesis in the Middle East.
    Whatever his intention, I think Obama`s priority is to say as
    little as possible that may hurt Ehud Barak`s chances of
    becoming the next prime minister. In the light of this, even
    Obama`s telephone chat with Abbas and the Arab tyrants on
    Day One of his presidency make sense: for the Israeli voters, the
    phone calls makes it look as if Ehud Barak chose the right
    strategy before and during the invasion of Gaza, thus increasing
    his chances of winning.
    If Obama instead had chosen to have a chat with leaders of, say
    Hamas and Iran or Syria, Netanyahu would certainly win, and
    everything would be lost from Obama`s point of view. This is
    Even if (again: a big IF) it turns out that Obama is smart and
    have good intentions of establishing more balanced policies,
    announcing them right now would be suicidal.
    Re. Daniel Levy`s idea to “get Hamas to look more like the IRA”
    (Steve`s formulation) seems like a tempting idea, given George
    Mitchell`s background. However, there are obvious local
    differences – among them the fact that Hamas operates with
    leaders both in Gaza and in Damascus. The circumstances may
    seem strikingly similar on the surface, but be significantly
    different below the surface.
    Perhaps someone with more local knowledge may contribute to
    the discussion?
    Nir Rosen?


  11. WigWag says:

    “Levy, though, has an interesting idea. Get Hamas to look more like the IRA.”
    Daniel Levy though thoughtful is almost always wrong. But he is right about two things and his idea of trying to get Hamas to look more like the IRA (with both a military branch and a political branch, Sinn Fein) is one of them. Of course while he will never admit it, Israel’s recent military attack on Gaza actually makes Levy’s idea even more practical.
    By degrading the military capabilities possessed by Hamas the Israelis have taken away one of the organization’s most beloved tools; military resistance. The unprecedented eagerness of the Europeans, the Egyptians and the Americans to prevent Hamas from rearming also makes it more difficult for Hamas to turn to its rockets, mortars and suicide bombers as its preferred method of resistance.
    The net result of the diminution of its military options vis a vis Israel will leave Hamas little choice but to develop a greater interest in political options for engaging Israel. Levy is right, the international community should encourage this. Israel’s military success in Gaza that makes Levy’s strategy for engaging Hamas potentially feasible.
    Can Hamas be turned into Sinn Fein? Who knows; but it is a good idea to try.
    The other thing that Levy is right about is that both the parties and the international community should stop aspiring for a peace agreement where everyone shakes hands, agrees to forget the animosity and lives happily ever after. Levy has stated on his blog that the best we can hope for in the intermediate term is a Kosovo-like situation where the parties are separated by a strong NATO force designed to prevent conflict and keep the peace. Such a force might have to be left in place for a generation.
    Of course this worked in Kosovo because the Kosovar Albanians welcomed NATO and were willing to pay the price of a long standing NATO presence as the price to be paid for their State. At this point it is conceivable that Fatah/Palestinian Authority would accept such a force on the West Bank if it meant the Israelis and the Israeli settlers would finally be gone. It is inconceivable that under the present circumstances Hamas would accept a similar deal for Gaza.
    That makes Levy’s idea even better. If Hamas can be turned towards a political road, moving them in the direction of accepting a significant NATO presence as the price they have to pay for their State just might be possible.
    It’s hard to believe, but Levy actually has a couple of good idea for a change.


  12. downtown says:

    “if we are going to get to serious negotiations that produce any different endgame –”
    Considering HRC’s pronouncements during her first press-conference at State about Israel’s rights to engage in whatever retaliatory actions it deems necessary, I am absolutely convinced that there will be no progress made that does not render the Palestinians as a prostrate, 2nd class entity. The entrenched establishments, both in Israel and here in the US, have only one endgame in sight – and that is complete and utter subjugation of the Palestinian People. Like preferential water allocations for Jews, complete control of the air above and ground below as well as various security cordons around whatever Bantustans they’ll eventually apportion to serve as a Palestinian Homeland. Obama’s stupid phrase about rockets raining down on the house his daughters are sleeping in did not have a moral counterpoint, which would have mentioned the tank shells and artillery raining down upon thousands and thousands of Gazans’ daughters.


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