Strenger Than Fiction / Thinking Outside of 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 the IRA and move from terror tactics to becoming legitimate players in the political arena.

Israels 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 the question of how to deal with Hamas.

This is the effect that fear has on all humans: it makes us freeze up and latch onto the current situation, even if it is clear that Israels policies towards Hamas in the last years have failed.

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

Israel itself demonstrated this point when it began to speak to PLO years before the PLO changed its charter that called for the abolition of Israel – and today it represents Israels preferred partner. Atran and Axelrod also report that in their meeting with Khaled Meshal, Hamas political leader, 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 the IRA and move from terror tactics to becoming legitimate players 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 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 wouldnt have much of a choice but to renounce terror, accept Israels legitimacy and to move toward peace with Israel.

Add to this the fact that the Palestinian electorate would see a realistic possibility of living in dignity and freedom, and would consequently cease to support an organization that perpetuates a state of war.

Israel has a major interest in moving in this direction. Recent history, including Israels 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 into taking part in the legitimate relation 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 League peace initiative. As a result, the overwhelming majority of Israelis either dont know anything at all about it, or are misinformed. Many, for example, believe that the initiative includes the right of return for Palestinian refugees, whereas the truth is that it only calls for a just solution to the refugee problem.

Hence, to make this move intuitive for Israels electorate, the Arab League peace initiative should be brought to the publics 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 them other ways of thinking, which then gradually become acceptable, alongside endorsements of these new ideas by trusted leaders.

All this should resonate with Ehud Baraks overall views: since his days as the IDF Chief of Staff he has believed that strategic alliances are an integral part of Israels overall security. Barak has strong leverage over 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, with Kadima, as many commentators have argued.

Barak should work with Kadima Chairwoman Tzipi Livni toward overcoming the politics of fear and paralysis and toward thinking outside of the box.

They can already start preparing the ground for such a move. They should use every occasion to acquaint Israels public with the Arab Leagues peace initiative. In doing so, they would gradually wake up Israels public from the nightmare they live in, in which they wait passively for something to happen rather than shaping its future in a positive direction.

Khaled Meshal AP June 2010