Just over 20 years ago, as Ronald Reagan passed the presidential baton to George H.W. Bush, the United States reversed a decades-long policy by initiating open diplomatic contacts with a group that it had long decried as a terrorist organization.
The announcement in December 1988 by Reagan’s secretary of state, George Schultz, that American diplomats would begin talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization was the culmination of a lengthy process by which a group that had for many years been considered off-limits was rendered a legitimate negotiating partner.
There is little doubt that this decision laid the foundations for the Oslo peace accords signed just under five years later. Nor can one doubt that the move was precipitated in part by the advocacy of American Jews who dissented from the prevailing view of Yasser Arafat as an unreconstructed terrorist.
The issue today, as we anticipate a far more radical power shift in Washington this month, is whether we are on the verge of another sea change in America’s view of yet another group it has long labeled as a terrorist organization?
When Britain’s Guardian recently reported that Barack Obama advisers are urging him to have American intelligence agencies “initiate low-level or clandestine” communications with Hamas, the president-elect’s transition team immediately denied any plans to start such a dialogue. But Obama’s team has to be wondering what it will do when the fighting in Gaza stops, especially if the next cease-fire is as shaky and short-lived as the recently expired agreement between Israel and Hamas. It is likely that, no matter how severe their group’s losses, Hamas’s leaders will eventually emerge from their hiding places claiming to have won and reap the applause of the Arab and Islamic worlds simply because they will have survived the Israeli onslaught.
More to the point, the fighting has, as Hamas intended, reinforced its prestige at the expense of its Fatah rivals. While there will always be those who blame the failure of Palestinian moderates on Israel’s unwillingness to make increasingly more drastic concessions, Palestinian politics have long had a gruesome dynamic that rewards those who shed Jewish blood at the expense of those who seek peace. Ever since the pre-1948 heyday of the Mufti of Jerusalem, the process by which radicals have overwhelmed moderates has been rooted in the fact that “resistance” to the Zionists is seen as more legitimate than compromise.
The one point critics of Israel’s campaign raise that makes sense is their assertion that attacking Hamas helps it politically. That, however, is an insufficient reason for the Jewish state to regard terrorist attacks on its citizens as something that must be accepted without response. But it is nonetheless true. Hamas’s popularity goes up whenever it is attacked no matter how severely it has provoked Israel. Nothing Israel does to Hamas is going to help Fatah.
Given its own record of incitement against Israel and subsidization of terror, Fatah’s credentials as peace partner are from impeccable. Nevertheless, maintaining hope for the two-state solution that most Israelis want depends on the Islamists being vanquished. If the odds of a corrupt and incompetent Fatah beating back Hamas were slim before the recent fighting, they are even slimmer today.
Seen in that light, talks with Hamas may seem tempting to the president-elect. But rather than encouraging peace, any outreach to Hamas on Obama’s part will encourage the group to persist in its rejectionist violence. Instead of seeking to restrain Israel, as many on the left, including some Jews, advocate, Obama ought to be telling Jerusalem to do everything it can to eliminate Hamas’s infrastructure. Such a strategy will help manage the conflict, which is all anyone can reasonably expect to achieve.
Unlike Fatah in 1988, Hamas is unwilling to make even the sort of insincere pledges for peace that satisfied those who embraced Arafat as a legitimate negotiating partner. But even if it did decide to hedge on its eliminationist Islamist ideology — and there will always be peace advocates who can be relied upon to seize any insignificant shred of evidence to support such an unlikely scenario — two factors are missing that applied in 1988 (which, it should be remembered, begat a disastrous process that led to more terror, not peace).
First, unlike Arafat’s PLO, which had been routed and forced to relocate to Tunisia from its Lebanese base in 1982, Hamas has yet to be dealt such a blow. So long as it can continue to run a mini-state in Gaza, it will have no reason to change its tune.
Second, in the late 1980s, Arafat was on the verge of losing his key source of support — the crumbling Soviet Union. Iran, Hamas’s main backer, has no plans for abandoning its web of terrorist allies. Indeed, with Tehran moving closer to nuclear capability and the West seemingly unable to find the will to stop it, there is little reason for Hamas to look elsewhere.
Sooner or later, Obama will have to face up to the more important challenge of stopping the Islamist regime in Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But in the meantime, the last thing he should do is to throw a lifeline to Iran’s terrorist allies.
Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of Commentary magazine.