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Should We Talk To Hamas?

By David Frum

As Israeli soldiers clear Gaza, a very different and more secret fight is being waged in the foreign ministries of the Western world. The issue at stake: Should Western governments talk to Hamas?

For years, a small group of foreign policy specialists have urged such talks. Now these advocates are becoming louder and more visible. Many European governments, including the British government, are listening very sympathetically.

It’s hard to assess the progress of this battle. How to measure the slow change of the bureaucratic mind? But when that mind does change, it changes very abruptly. One day the very idea of talking to Hamas is outrageous, not to be discussed. The next day we discover that the outrageous has been quietly going on for months.

So let’s try to understand this debate before it is all smoothly settled behind the scenes.

Here’s what proponents of talking to Hamas say:

Yes, Hamas commits terrible acts of terrorism. It also provides important social services in Gaza. Many Palestinians support Hamas — they did after all win a majority in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, the only parliamentary elections the Palestinians have ever had. Not everybody involved in Hamas is a killer. Some of them might be open to a deal with Israel. How will we ever know who is open to a deal if we don’t talk to them? In Iraq, the United States talked to the Sunni insurgents — and those talks helped draw many insurgents away from al-Qaeda. In Afghanistan, we are preparing to talk to elements of the Taliban, to see whether any of them can be persuaded to put down their arms and join the political process. Why should Gaza be any different?

(To read a longer form version of this argument, visit the Web site ConflictsForum.org. Conflict Forum’s director, former British intelligence officer Alastair Crooke, ranks among the leading proponents of talks with Hamas. If interested, you can view a discussion of this idea between Amjad Atallah of the New America Foundation and myself at http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/17110)

Where’s the flaw?

Advocates of engagement with Hamas use the word “talk” to mean two very different things — in fact, two exactly opposite things.

For sure, Western intelligence services should be conducting informal talks with individual members of Hamas. We can learn things by listening to them (always remembering of course that they may be feeding disinformation intended to deceive –and that they are probing us at the same time as we probe them).

Likewise, it’s good strategy to try to detach less radical individuals from radical insurgencies. That strategy is now pacifying Iraq. It is being tested in Afghanistan. Conceivably it could work in Gaza too. If that’s what is proposed, it’s worth a try.

But of course that is not what is being proposed. What is being proposed is to talk to Hamas’s leadership — not disaffected Hamas membership. What is being proposed is not intelligence-gathering, but diplomatic negotiations.

Such negotiations would create a series of extremely dangerous incentives for the region and the Palestinian people.

Hamas seized power in Gaza in a violent coup in June, 2007. At that same time, Hamas attempted to assassinate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Now Hamas and Abbas are locked in a desperate competition over the future of the Palestinian areas. Question:Wouldn’t Western governments want to see Abbas win this competition? Isn’t it important that Abbas –and only Abbas –be seen to deliver results?

Like the extremist Islamic groups that threaten India and the Western world, Hamas holds extremist, maximalist goals, which contemplate the deaths of many millions of people. Western governments of course want Muslim populations to reject such views. It would be nice if these views were rejected because they were wicked and wrong. But human nature being what it is, such views are even more likely to be rejected if they are seen as defeated, futile and utterly counter-productive.

Negotiations with terrorist groups incentivize terrorism. Whenever the terrorist group is thwarted, it retains the option of returning to terrorism in hope of gaining better terms. The Irish Republican Army recurrently used such a strategy in its negotiations with the Blair government in the 1990s. A similar calculation impelled Yasser Arafat to launch a renewed terror war in October, 2000. Starting talks with a group that has not first disavowed violence is an invitation to even more violence than would otherwise have occurred.

Advocates of talks with terrorists often present themselves as pragmatists. Not so. They are guided by unstated biases and pure wishful thinking.

It is those who oppose terrorist negotiations who care about political incentives and practical real-world consequences. Hamas’s actions have made it a moral pariah. It is in almost everybody’s pragmatic self-interest that a pariah it remain, until and unless it fundamentally changes its nature and its goals.


Originally published in the National Post.

 
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