Carlo Strenger Headshot

Thinking out of the Box about Hamas

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Israel's history is replete with creative, daring thinking in the military domain. Unfortunately its policies are characterized by a great lack of strategic vision and creative thinking, particularly with respect to the question of how to deal with Hamas. This is the effect that fear has on all humans: it makes us freeze and hold on to the current situation, even if it is clear that Israel's policies towards Hamas in the last years have failed.

The idea was to isolate and weaken Hamas by the blockade, but this has proven a disastrous strategy. Gaza's economy is effectively ruled by Hamas, because it has control of the vast tunnel system through which goods are imported from Egypt, and hence Hamas' power is unrivalled. In addition the blockade has turned into a source of international embarrassment and the flotilla debacle has increased Israel's international isolation.

What alternatives are there to Israel's unsuccessful attempts to weaken Hamas? The history of peace agreements shows that it is necessary to include all major parties of the conflict in negotiations, and, whether we like it or not, Hamas is a major player in the Middle Eastern Conflict. Of course the idea of talking to Hamas is quite unpalatable for Israelis. Hamas' charter is replete with rabid anti-Semitism including quotes from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, one of the most notorious anti-Semitic forgeries of the twentieth century. Hamas explicitly calls for the destruction of Israel and it has a long history of terror attacks on Israel. Hence, the argument goes, talking to Hamas would do nothing but to legitimize a terror organization.

A recent The New York Times op-ed is of great relevance to this situation. It is written by Scott Atran, an anthropologist, who is one of the world's leading experts on terror organizations and is regularly called to testify before Congress; and Robert Axelrod, a leading political scientist and expert on the dynamics of negotiations who also regularly consults for the US government.

They argue that it is a mistake not to talk to groups that are currently categorized as involved in terror activity. They show that historically successful peace processes required an intermediary stage where groups like the IRA in Ireland and the ANC in South Africa were involved in negotiations before they renounced violence. Israel itself moved through such a stage when it began to speak to PLO years before the PLO changed its charter that called for the abolition of Israel - and it is today Israel's preferred partner. Atran and Axelrod also report that in their meeting with Khaled Meshal, the leader of Hamas currently in Damascus, Meshal explicitly envisaged the possibility of peace, not only a Hudna, with Israel.

Talking to Hamas makes sense for Israel if there are good reasons to believe that, in the long run, the organization will take the course of the ANC and the IRA and move from terror tactics to becoming legitimate players in the political arena. My main claim is that Israel should not wait passively for this change to happen. There is something Israel can do to influence Hamas' state of mind: engaging with the Arab League Peace Initiative which offers recognition of Israel and normal relations in exchange for a return to the 1967 borders and the establishment of a Palestinian State.

Once this process starts, Hamas would soon find itself without any strategic depth. Such a peace process would of course include Syria, and Hamas' politbureau would be left without a home base. If it were to realize that the whole Arab world is about to move towards normalization with Israel, Hamas wouldn't have much of a choice but to renounce terror, accept Israel's legitimacy and to move towards peace with Israel. Add to this that the Palestinian electorate would see a realistic possibility to live in dignity and freedom, and would therefore no longer support an organization that perpetuates a state of war.

Israel has a major interest in moving in this direction. Recent history, including Israel's experience, shows that a powerful military has effective ways of dealing with state actors, but is relatively powerless in dealing with non-state actors. Hence Israel should do everything it can to influence Hamas to taking part in the legitimate relation between a Palestinian state and Israel.

The main problem with this idea is that all Israeli governments since 2002 have chosen not to address the Arab-League peace initiative. As a result, the overwhelming majority of Israelis either doesn't know anything at all about it, or has wrong information. Many for example, believe that the initiative includes the right of return for Palestinian refugees, whereas the truth is that it only calls for a 'just solution of the refugee problem'.

Hence, to make this move acceptable for Israel's electorate, the Arab League peace initiative should be brought to the public's attention systematically including its details. Psychological research shows that the only way to change entrenched preconceptions is to flood people with information that shows them other ways of thinking which then gradually become acceptable in addition to endorsement by trusted leaders.

All this should resonate with Defense Minister Ehud Barak's overall views: since his days as the IDF's Chief of Staff he has believed that strategic alliances are an integral part of Israel's overall security. Barak has strong leverage over Netanyahu, because he provides the necessary security credentials and international legitimacy. He should not be content to force Netanyahu to exchange Avigdor Lieberman's illiberal and far-right Yisrael Beiteinu, which has become a major international liability, with Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima, as many commentators have argued. Given the growing tensions between Netanyahu and Lieberman, this development seems to become more likely now.

Barak should work with Livni towards overcoming the politics of fear and paralysis and towards thinking out of the box. They can already start preparing the ground for such a move. They should use every occasion to acquaint Israel's public opinion with the Arab League's peace initiative. In doing so, they would gradually wake up Israel's public from the nightmare that Israel can only wait passively for things to happen, and that it has ways to shape its future in a positive direction.