Last year, I published a story (“Parties of God: The Bush doctrine and the rise of Islamic democracy”), that discussed whether or not it was desirable for the U.S. government to engage with Islamic political movements, including Hamas. The piece closed with this thought:
[B]y scorning politically active Islamic movements and denying their legitimacy, the United States is essentially signaling to the Middle Eastern public that electoral politics are a meaningless dead end—precisely the same message that this public hears from Al Qaeda. Last year, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s top deputy, issued a video that attacked the [Egyptian] Muslim Brotherhood for participating in elections, saying it played into America’s “political game” of “exploit[ing] the masses and their love for Islam”; in another video he criticized Hamas, saying that armed jihad, not elections, was the only way to liberate Palestine. If America refuses to engage with Islamist movements, however foreign or flawed their ideas may seem, al-Zawahiri’s antidemocratic rhetoric may be increasingly well received.
In researching the story I had a conversation with Efraim Halevy, former head of the Israeli Mossad, who endorsed the idea of talks between his country and Hamas. Now Laura Rozen of Mother Jones has published a terrific interview with Halevy, in which he lays out his thinking. Halevy told Rozen:
Hamas has, unfortunately, demonstrated that they are more credible and effective as a political force inside Palestinian society than Fatah, the movement founded by [former Palestinian Authority president] Yassir Arafat, which is now more than ever discredited as weak, enormously corrupt and politically inept. [Hamas has] pulled off three ‘feats’ in recent years in conditions of great adversity. They won the general elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006; they preempted a Fatah design to wrest control of Gaza from them in 2007; and they broke out of a virtual siege that Israel imposed upon them in January 2008. In each case, they affected a strategic surprise upon all other players in the region and upon the United States, and in each case, no effective counter strategy mounted by the U.S. and Israel proved effective.
When Rozen asked Halevy whether Hamas should be required to recognize Israel’s right to exist before talks were held, he replied: “Israel has been successful in inflicting very serious losses upon Hamas in both Gaza and the West Bank and this has certainly had an effect on Hamas, who are now trying to get a ‘cease fire.’ But this has not cowed them into submission and into accepting the three-point diktat that the international community has presented to them: to recognize Israel’s right to exist; to honor all previous commitments of the Palestinian Authority; and to prevent all acts of violence against Israel and Israelis. The last two conditions are, without doubt, sine qua non. The first demands an a priori renunciation of ideology before contact is made. Such a demand has never been made before either to an Arab state or to the Palestinian Liberation Organization/Fatah. There is logic in the Hamas’ position that ideological ‘conversion’ is the endgame and not the first move in a negotiation.”
Can you imagine any American presidential candidate uttering such words? He or she would be crucified for such a display of common sense (and undoubtedly branded as anti-Semitic as well). Even expressing a word of sympathy for the Palestinians is strictly forbidden in American political culture–as Barack Obama has learned. That the views of an Israeli spy chief are radically pro-Arab, within the context of American politics, is a depressing reflection on the state of our debate on the Middle East.