Time To Reach Out to Hamas

Islamic Movement May Be Ready To Engage Israel and West

Time Is Now: Hamas is showing signs of being open to dialogue with the West and Israel. It would be counterproductive to rebuff them, Nicolas Pelham writes.
getty images
Time Is Now: Hamas is showing signs of being open to dialogue with the West and Israel. It would be counterproductive to rebuff them, Nicolas Pelham writes.

By Nicolas Pelham

Published December 28, 2011, issue of January 06, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

It is easy to despair of diplomacy. The Mideast peace process is moribund, homegrown grassroots forces sweep the region and topple familiar old allies, America retreats from Iraq leaving the fires it ignited still aflame, and even the region’s weakest and most indulged leaders, Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu, turn their backs on compromise, defying the world’s only superpower. All told, with America’s initiatives in the region dogged with defeatism, this hardly seems an auspicious moment for its Jews to launch their own.

But one area from which American Jews have recoiled could yet yield significant dividends: diplomatic engagement with the region’s ascendant Jewish and Muslim national-religious movements. It is easy to understand the aversion. Both employ heinous means contrary to the liberal values on which most American Jews are raised. One has slain thousands of Israeli Jews in a violent uprising, the other counts an Israeli prime minister amongst its victims. Though their leaders may have modified their methods, they justify past crimes, and continue to harm civilian life and property.

But as a political rather than emotional calculation, the high-hobby horse approach to resolving conflict is naïve. Just as Palestinians and their supporters should understand the seismic shifts inside Israeli politics if they are to have any hope of reaching an accommodation with them, so a Jewish understanding of the upheaval in Arab and Palestinian society is equally vital. Boycotts and bans on engagement will not narrow the gaps.

They are also counterproductive. In Israel and Palestine, disengagement has created a vacuum, which national-religious forces on both sides have quickly filled. At the ballot box, in the bureaucracy and on the battlefield the religious right is reshaping the region’s geopolitical map.

Under Hamas, Gaza has dug itself out of the manmade humanitarian crisis created by Israel’s siege, burrowing underground trade routes to Egypt. It has sloughed off the drug of donor dependence, and through entrepreneurship turned Gaza — long dismissed as a ungovernable write-off — into a budding, orderly business concern. Meanwhile the standing of the West’s “moderate” secular-minded favorites in Israel, Palestine and much of the Arab world, shrinks to the point of irrelevance, if not collapse. External powers seeking conflict resolution increasingly operate in a virtual reality, shuttling between the forces the Western powers wished could determine the outcome, not those who do.

One might have thought that the stronger the national-religious forces grow the less need they would have of friendly ties with the West. Nevertheless, there are a number of indicators that suggest that this is an unusually auspicious juncture for launching a dialogue:

  1. Israel feels more isolated regionally than at any point over the past two decades. It has no ambassador in Turkey, no embassy in Egypt, and its relations with Jordan are characterized by suspicion. Overland trips, even to Sinai, have stopped. It is erecting high concrete walls along many of its borders. What ties remain are primarily with the remnants of the old Arab order, whose generals appear helpless to stem the downward spiral. Some Israeli officials anxiously want to reach out to the new actors. By establishing a dialogue with North Africa’s Islamist politicians and helping Israel bridge the gapAmerican Jews could help Israel exit its ghetto.

  2. America’s support for the birth of Arab democracy has garnered rare appreciation from Islamist leaders that elections are now propelling to power. As they assume the responsibilities of government, the priority of reviving beleaguered economies dependent on Western aid, trade and tourism adds further incentive to cooperate. Surprisingly, Salafi leaders in Egypt have already signaled their interest in open, public engagement.

  3. When it comes to Gaza, Israel is significantly more progressive and open-minded than its American supporters. Since coming to power, Netanyahu’s government has eased the siege imposed by his predecessor and reached out to Hamas to negotiate, with the help of external mediators, a prisoner release which saw Gilad Shalit and hundreds of Hamas prisoners emerge from captivity and return home alive. Hamas has been similarly pragmatic. The two parties have negotiated repeated ceasefires, which have seen Hamas assume responsibility for protecting Israeli civilians not only from their own fighters but from Gaza’s other multiple militant groups, and Israel sheathe much of its fire-power.

  4. Such shifts are largely tactical, but there is cause to hope that they could yet spur a strategic transformation. As Hamas abandons its former patrons in Syria, it is returning like a prodigal son to its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, shedding its Jihadi image and realigning itself with the latter’s traditional civilian values. In his recent meeting in Cairo with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas’s political leader, Khalid Meshal, agreed to cease fire in Gaza and the West Bank until Palestinian elections, promote peaceful resistance in place of the armed struggle “in the current stage,” and resume Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for a two-state settlement based on 1967 lines. Some Hamas leaders favor re-establishing the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, as a socio-political group distinct from Hamas’s military backbone, thereby creating a political organization with which the West could formally engage, much as in the case of Northern Ireland’s Sinn Fein.

There is another internal reason for the Jewish Diaspora to intervene, rooted in the worldview it seeks to project. In a world where Jews struggle to fend off an escalating campaign delegitimizing Israel, outreach to the Muslim world — even if ultimately unsuccessfully — will counter the perception of a rejectionist navel-gazing Judaism and provide a living example of the religious values of tolerance which America’s Jews like to celebrate.

Engaging in dialogue does not make one an Islamist, any more than President Reagan’s initiation of the START talks with the Evil Empire made him a communist. But it can inject much needed fresh thinking.

What form could such engagement take? Religious and lay Jewish leaders could consider partnering with their American-Muslim counterparts and together conducting a tour of North Africa, Gaza, the West Bank and Israel, meeting interlocutors in the open where possible, and in private where not. Not only would a joint delegation offer a pluralist model, it could help offset bigots who might otherwise slam their doors shut. The purpose would be short on specifics. Delegates would listen not lecture, and refrain from setting ideological hoops designed to confront and exclude. They would not engage in the nitty-gritty of negotiations, but could promote measures of mutual benefit to religious movements, such as an accord on freedom of access and movement to pilgrimage sites, both Jewish ones under Muslim control and Muslim ones under Jewish.

In what is increasingly characterized less as an Arab Spring than a regional religious winter, engagement with national-religious movements offers hope of breaking the ice. It could delay the day Egypt’s ascendant Islamist politicians jettison their 33 years of calm with Israel, and encourage Hamas leaders to deepen theirs. Palestinian Islamists who have long spoken of a transformative hudna, or truce, might flesh one out.

The alternative — deepened polarization and a prolongation of the region’s cold war — carries far greater risks. With hopes of engagement dashed, Islamist groups might look for succor and support from forces inimical to the West, either Iran — as Hamas did, when the West closed the door following its 2006 electoral triumph — or more radical Jihadi groups. Unlike Israel’s Cast Lead assault on Gaza, another Israeli offensive could quickly spiral beyond Gaza’s narrow confines into a febrile region. Rather than allow animosities to fester and degenerate into another cycle of bloodletting, America’s Jewish leaders would do well to explore a way out.

Nicolas Pelham has worked as a journalist and analyst in the Middle East for 20 years. He currently reports for The Economist from Jerusalem.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.