Will Hamas Be the Next Extremist Group to Be Engaged by the U.S.?

After the Obama administration welcomed talks with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the co-editor of 'Engaging Extremists' argues that Hamas is 'engageable'.

WASHINGTON - The Obama administration's policy of engaging in dialogue with Iran has many critics. Proponent say engagement is not the same as appeasement and, if cleverly applied, does not necessarily erode the deterrence abilities of the country using it. Its opponents, on the other hand, are concerned not only with the moral implications of engaging with rogue regimes and extremists, but also with the risks it bears.

President Barack Obama has shown that he is not quite the peacenik many thought he was because of his position on the war in Iraq. The drone campaign against Islamists in six countries has intensified, and Washington has begun reaching out directly to the Iranian people, not just their leaders - and imposing sanctions. But this administration seems to remain firmly committed to the idea that if you can end a conflict or stop America's costly involvement in it by engaging with extremists, you should do so.

Hamas man in Gaza - Natasha Mozgovaya
Natasha Mozgovaya

That's why the United States opened talks with the Taliban ahead of U.S. troops' gradual exit from Afghanistan. And that's why last week in Budapest, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said U.S. officials renewed "limited contacts" with the Muslim Brotherhood ahead of the September elections in Egypt - alarming some Congress members.

Robert Dold, a freshman Republican Congressman from Illinois, said he has "serious concerns about the apparent decision to resume formal contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood," warning that the group "is not committed to protecting minority rights, seeks severe limits on the freedom of religion and the rights of women, is closely aligned with Hamas, and openly calls for a review of the Camp David peace accords with Israel."

But on Friday, after the Muslim Brotherhood spokesman welcomed the dialogue with the United States, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, "We welcome this welcome."

Talking, not demonizing

I. William Zartman, a co-editor (with Guy Olivier Faure ) of the new book "Engaging Extremists: Trade-offs, Timing and Diplomacy" and a professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, is not at all surprised that the Muslim Brotherhood - which administration officials tend to view as a fundamentalist group but not a terrorist organization - is now in the game.

"I think it's wise," Zartman told Haaretz, adding that it would have been better had the United States maintained contact all along. "We should be talking with groups we consider enemies. It's not a popular position, because we've demonized them and drawn a firm distinction between the good guys and the bad guys. The Muslim Brotherhood are actually pretty confused about what they want, and the organization is already divided between at least three groups. You talk to these groups for a variety of reasons. One of them is to gather intelligence, to find out what they think, what are the differences of opinions among their leaders. And also to sow doubts. Talking for a while, you can raise questions in their own lines, what they are for and what they think we are for - they've demonized us as well and they have to, because it's a tool of groups who want to build inner solidarity."

Zartman said that though Obama has not been "too coherent in his engagement policies," the drone campaign is not inconsistent with engagement. "Engagement doesn't mean lying down and throwing up your arms," he said. "It means convincing the other side it can't make it in current way of doing things. It's a two-handed policy."

Extremist organizations can be transformed, according to an article in the book that cited a Rand Corporation study analyzing 648 terrorist groups that existed between 1968 and 2006, and discovered that 43 percent of the groups stopped pursuing violence when they chose the political path instead.

"As long as the organization's ends are millenialist dreams, globalist transformations, and activated worldviews that require terrorist means - there is no point in negotiating and no hope in engaging," Zartman and Faure write in the book. "This means that al-Qaeda is not considered to be engageable, whereas Hamas is."

The inevitable question, then, is whether Hamas will indeed be the next group to be engaged by the Obama administration. Zartman said it's very possible, though somewhat risky in the U.S. domestic political arena.

"The administration clearly doesn't want to take the risk of alienating the Jewish vote," Zartman said. "It could do it creatively, with a great deal of control over its language. I think it's catastrophic what we did in 2006, not honoring the results of the Palestinian elections and working with the government. And now we are making such fine-tuned distinctions that we'll work with united Palestinian government if they do this and this - it's completely destructive. You can't set as a precondition what you want to get from them by negotiations. It's senseless. You talk with them first and then negotiate in order to get the recognition.

"The U.S. and the government of Israel have done a terrible job by not offering something positive to the [Palestinian Authority] and setting them up as Israeli Arabs in the eyes of the Palestinians, so they could not go back to their population and say: 'Look what we did for you.' They got nothing for their good behavior. So the voters said, 'Why should we vote for you, when Hamas strikes fear in the enemy?' They've been badly handled by the demonizing tactic as part of our policy in the Middle East. I am not saying we should give in to them, but the tactics of dealing with them have been awful."

Zartman said negotiating with terrorists doesn't necessarily encourage more terrorism, adding that for all the complexities involved in striking a deal with Hamas to secure the release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, he urgently needs to be freed.

"It's not true that negotiating alone with terrorists encourages them to do more," said Zartman. "What encourages hostage takers is coming to the conclusion that there is a deal that favors them. In Shalit's case, 1,000:1 is hard odds, especially if the 1,000 Palestinian prisoners are convicted killers and not just political prisoners. It makes it very difficult; I won't pontificate on this one."

All the same, he said, the five-year delay is causing Israel to lose the high ground.

"To get Shalit out of captivity, it's an urgency," said Zartman. "There are strong reactions against government's refusal to pay the price in Israel - but there is also a point that Israel's and the U.S. position is understood as 'saving one human life is worth the world,' and I think they are losing the high road of this position by leaving this crisis for so long, unresolved."