WASHINGTON — The Bush administration “will neither recognize nor engage with” members of Hamas or Hezbollah who are elected to office unless the two militant groups disarm, a top American diplomat told the Forward.
David Satterfield, the second-ranking official at the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, said that the Bush administration is not attempting to block the groups from participating in Palestinian or Lebanese elections. But, he added, the Bush administration would only recognize armed militant groups “if they lay down their arms.”
Satterfield’s comments, which appeared to overturn several earlier remarks from the American brass, come as Hamas and Hezbollah officials are vowing to hold on to their weapons.
With Hamas expected to win a significant share of the vote in July’s Palestinian legislative elections, the policy outlined by Satterfield could leave the White House in the position of boycotting top officials in the Palestinian Authority at a time when the Bush administration is trying to advance the peace process. The issue also could drive a deeper wedge between Washington and Europe, where some governments have indicated a willingness to deal with militants who take part in democratic elections.
Critics argue that the Bush administration has failed to wrestle with the possibility that a push by the United States for elections in the Middle East could produce victories for radical Islamic groups that refuse to give up their weapons.
The “Bush administration rarely focuses on that,” said Martin Indyk, who served as President Clinton’s chief Middle East adviser. Indyk, now the head of the Washington-based Saban Center for Middle East Policy, added that the White House “has the tendency to put these kind of issues in the ‘too-hard’ basket.”
Wanting the White House to press Arab countries on the issue, Indyk said that he could find only one example of an American official even stating that armed groups should not take part in the political process: President Bush’s April 19 interview with the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation.
“You can’t have a free country if a group of people are like an armed militia,” Bush said, adding, “citizens’ groups that are armed, trying to impose their will on a free society, is just not the definition of a free society.”
However, in recent weeks, White House spokesman Scott McClellan and J. Scott Carpenter, deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, have sounded a different note.
“The one thing that you see when people have elections that are free and fair is that they tend to choose people who are committed to improving their livelihood, not people who are committed to terrorist acts,” McClellan said during his April 13 daily briefing when asked how the United States would respond to a Hamas victory in next July’s Palestinian elections. “And I think if you look back at the previous Palestinian elections, the people that were elected, while they might have been members of Hamas, they were business professionals. They were people that ran on talking about improving the quality of life for the Palestinian people and addressing their economic needs and addressing other needs that are important to them — not terrorists.”
Carpenter made a similar remark last month at a conference in Qatar on American-Islamic relations. According to notes taken by several reporters who attended the conference, Carpenter said that America was “prepared to accept the implications” of allowing radical groups to participate in elections. He added, “I won’t go into Hamas and Hezbollah — people in the region themselves will have to ask” whether they are willing to support “people who in their underlying ideology are against democracy itself.”
Some observers were surprised that Carpenter did not articulate a clear American position rejecting the participation in the political process of inherently anti-democratic forces.
In his remarks to the Forward, Satterfield said that electing people who are affiliated with militant groups is the internal business of the Lebanese and the Palestinians. “But the continued involvement of such groups in terrorism is very much our business,” said Satterfield, who spoke to the Forward after participating in a panel discussion at the annual Washington conference of the American Jewish Committee.
Noting that some governments in Europe are willing to overlook the terrorist actions of such groups as they transform into political parties, Satterfield said that “there should be no place for any blessing” of these groups as long as they engage in terrorism.
Hamas officials are insisting that violence against Israel is a legitimate option as long as Israel maintains a presence in the West Bank and Gaza. Senior Hezbollah official Naim Kassem said last week that the organization intends to maintain its weapons “to defend [Lebanon] from the Israeli danger.”
Hamas is performing strongly in the Palestinian municipal elections, which have taken place in phases during the past two months. Last week, Hamas won a majority in elections to the city council of Qalqilya, an important town in the West Bank, and to large municipal councils in Gaza.