Thinking Outside the Box About Hamas

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 IRA and move from terror tactics to becoming a legitimate player in the political arena.

Israel's history is replete with creative, daring military thinking. Unfortunately its policies are characterized by a great lack of strategic vision and creative thinking, particularly with respect to how to deal with Hamas. Fear has this effect on all people: It makes us freeze up and latch onto the current situation, even if it is clear that Israel's policies on Hamas have failed in recent years.

A recent New York Times op-ed by Scott Atran, an anthropologist and expert on terror organizations, and Robert Axelrod, a political scientist and expert on the dynamics of negotiations, argues that it is a mistake not to talk to groups that are categorized as involved in terror activity. The two professors, who are often called on to advise the U.S. government, show that historically successful peace processes required an intermediary stage where groups like the IRA in Ireland and ANC in South Africa took part in negotiations before they renounced violence.

Israel itself demonstrated this point when it began to speak to the PLO years before the PLO changed its charter calling for the abolition of Israel - and today it is Israel's preferred partner. Atran and Axelrod also report that Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshal told them he explicitly envisaged the possibility of peace, not only a hudna (period of calm ), 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 IRA and move from terror tactics to becoming a legitimate player 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 on the Arab League's 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' politburo (currently based in Damascus ) would be left without a home base. If it were to realize that the whole Arab world is about to move toward normalization with Israel, Hamas wouldn't have much of a choice but to renounce terror, accept Israel's legitimacy and move toward peace. Add to this the fact that the Palestinian electorate would see a realistic possibility of living in dignity and freedom, and would cease to 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 take part in the legitimate relations 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 peace initiative. As a result, the overwhelming majority of Israelis either don't know anything about it or are misinformed. Many, for example, believe that the initiative includes the right of return for Palestinian refugees, whereas it only calls for a "just solution to the refugee problem."

Hence, to make this move intuitive for Israel's electorate, the Arab peace initiative should be brought to the public's attention systematically and in a detailed fashion. Psychological research shows that the only way to change entrenched preconceptions is to flood people with information that shows other ways of thinking, which then gradually become acceptable, alongside endorsements of these new ideas by trusted leaders.

All this should resonate with Defense Minister Ehud Barak's overall views. Since his days as the Israel Defense Forces' chief of staff he has believed that strategic alliances are an integral part of Israel's overall security. Barak has strong leverage over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because he provides the necessary security credentials and international legitimacy. He should not be content to force Netanyahu to exchange Yisrael Beiteinu, which has become a major international liability, for Kadima, as many commentators have argued.

Barak should work with Kadima chief Tzipi Livni toward overcoming the politics of fear and paralysis; they should think outside the box. They can start preparing the ground for such a move now. They should use every occasion to acquaint the Israeli public with the Arab peace initiative. In doing so, they would gradually wake up Israelis from their nightmare in which they wait passively for something to happen rather than shaping the future in a positive direction.