Lexington and Hamas

I am a fan of the Lexington blog, by the United States editor of the The Economist, who also pens a column in the magazine. He recently had a fine call to build that mosque in reaction to the Park51 controversy. But I have to disagree with a recent post on Hamas, which endorsed the Middle East Quartet's position that Hamas must accept pre-conditions to enter negotiations:

I was delighted at the beginning of this week's Middle East peace summit in Washington to hear George Mitchell, America's peace envoy, nail the much-quoted argument that Hamas should be invited into the peace process in Palestine, just like the IRA was in Northern Ireland. This is what he said:

“Let me say they’re very different… And while we should learn what we can from other processes, each is unique... But on the central point, the reality is that in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, the political party that is affiliated with the IRA, did not enter the negotiations until after 15 months had elapsed in the negotiations, and only then because they met two central conditions that had been established. The first was a ceasefire, and the second was a publicly stated commitment to what came to be known as the Mitchell Principles because I was the chairman of the commission that established them.”

Exactly. Of course there will be no final deal on Palestine without the acquiescence of Hamas, which represents at least half of the Palestinian movement and controls the Gaza Strip. Of course it should be at the table at some point. But Hamas has so far locked itself out of the talks by its refusal to accept the three conditions laid down by the international community: a ceasefire, recognising Israel and abiding by previous agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinians. I understand why agreeing to these conditions is difficult for a movement with Hamas's history. But, please, no more IRA comparisons. 

This is disingenuous. First of all, the Mitchell Principles were a pre-condition for all participants in the talks, not just one.  This is important because the biggest feature of the Israel-Palestinian dynamic is imbalance between the two sides, compounded by imbalance in the way the "international community" (really only the United States) deals with them.

Secondly, they did not include any condition that entailed a specific outcome to negotiations, such as a recognition of the state of Israel. Especially when Israel does not recognize any of its own borders — it has never set them! What is Hamas supposed to recognize when it recognizes Israel? The 1967 line (not acceptable to any Israeli government so far)? Eretz Israel, between the Nile and Euphrates, that some still hold dear? The 1948 UN partition plan? You tell me. The whole point of the negotiations is to decide on borders. Or is Hamas supposed to recognize "Israel's right to exist" — in which case, where is the reciprocity when you have an Israeli government that is non-committal about the two-state solution.

Thirdly, both Lexington and Mitchell are forgetting that the Mitchell Principles were a) commitments to going towards certain goals (rejection of violence, disarmament of paramilitary factions, abiding by the terms of all-party negotiations, etc.) and b) not applied immediately, since there were still violent factions as negotiations went on. Clearly they are meant as guidelines to work towards, not prerequisites.

Beyond this, there has been absolutely no effort to woo Hamas into joining talks, or achieving Palestinian reconciliation so that more representative Palestinian negotiating team can come to the negotiations. Quite the opposite: the negotiating team that went to Washington is increasingly seen as unrepresentative of the Palestinians. Since both Fatah and Hamas officials (executive and legislative) have outstayed their electoral terms, neither can be said to be representative. Half of them even less. The lesson is that healing the Palestinian house should be a more important first step, especially when no one really has much faith in the current negotiations.

Lexington could have raised other, much more crucial issues about Hamas. Most notably, he could have asked whether it is truly interested in a negotiated settlement (there have been encouraging signs, but overall ambiguity remains) and is able to withstand pressure from allies that have their own interests to pursue (i.e. Iran and Syria). He could have also asked whether the current Israeli government should also be imposed conditions and pressures, most notably an immediate freeze of settlements, and an acceptance of past negotiations and UN resolutions (again here we find ambiguity, to say the least). It's a shame he didn't.   

Update: Here Henry Siegman says US Hamas policy blocks Middle East peace.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.