Is it Finally Time for Dialogue Between the US and Hamas?

Khaled Elgindy
Khaled Elgindy
Khaled Elgindy Former Brookings Expert, Senior Fellow - Middle East Institute

April 9, 2012

This week’s visit to Washington by members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, demonstrated just how much has changed in US-Arab relations in the wake of the Arab uprisings. The high-profile Egyptian delegation coincides with visits by representatives of other Islamist parties from Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan and Libya also in town this week for various meetings and conferences. While skepticism (and in some circles open hostility) toward Islamists persists, the unspoken boycott of political Islam by the US administration and most of the Washington policy establishment has officially come to an end.

To be sure, this newfound openness is rooted in pragmatic rather than sentimental or intellectual considerations. Islamists have long been the most formidable opposition forces in the Arab world and are now poised to take power in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the region. Yet there is one electorally successful group that is unlikely to be welcomed in Washington anytime soon: Hamas. While the Palestinian Islamist group’s status and circumstances differ from those of other Islamist movements around the region, its continued shunning by Washington may be just as outdated and counter-productive.

Unlike Egypt’s Brotherhood or Tunisia’s Ennahda, of course, Hamas is officially designated by the US as a “foreign terrorist organization,” and the organization has indeed carried out numerous attacks against Israeli civilians over the years. As a result, the United States maintains a strict no-contact policy with Hamas members and US anti-terror laws prohibit any dealings with the organization. So entrenched is Hamas’ pariah status that even the pursuit of national unity, which necessarily entails ending the nearly five-year feud between Gaza’s Hamas rulers and Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, is considered a punishable offense in Washington.

Even so, Hamas remains a major force in Palestinian politics, one that cannot be wished away or boycotted out of existence. Like its Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts, Hamas is first and foremost a political organization with its own constituency and base of support, as demonstrated by its surprise electoral victory in 2006. The group’s political success is less a function of its Islamist ideology or acts of violence than of its culture of defiance and, perhaps more importantly, its ability to channel the frustration of many Palestinians, for whom five decades of Fatah domination produced few economic or political gains — least of all on the promise of national liberation through negotiations.

More important, Hamas has undergone significant changes in recent years and continues to evolve politically. While many cite the various dreadful passages in Hamas’s 1988 founding charter as proof of its inherent extremism, other documents may be more instructive of Hamas’s current leanings. In particular, its electoral manifesto of 2006 was notable for its omission of language calling for Israel’s destruction. Meanwhile, Hamas leaders both inside and outside Gaza, while still withholding formal recognition of Israel, have accepted the basic outlines of a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, in line with the international consensus.

The very decision to enter the political fray and contest elections in 2006, after having boycotted previous polls, was a sign of Hamas’ growing pragmatism. This shift toward normal politics comes at the expense of Hamas’ traditional “resistance” agenda. Whereas its leaders once condemned their Fatah rivals for “collaborating” with the occupation, five years of governing Gaza have turned the tables on Hamas. Although it often tolerates rocket fire into Israel as a form of pressure and to boost its resistance credentials, sometimes leading to wider confrontations with Israel, Hamas has by and large sought to prevent militants from launching attacks against Israel in recent years.

The Arab Spring has only heightened Hamas’ yearning for political normalcy and international legitimacy. With Islamists coming to power in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere, Hamas seeks to be part of the “green wave” now sweeping the region. This trend has also been aided by Hamas’ historic decision to break with Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, its longtime ally and political benefactor. Since then, Hamas officials have also hinted at a willingness to move away from armed struggle in favor of nonviolent popular resistance.

This does not mean, as some have argued, that the United States should engage directly with Hamas — which would only undermine the already precarious position of Abbas’ PA and is fraught with numerous legal and political difficulties — only that it allow Palestinians to engage with each other. America’s continued opposition to Palestinian unity, particularly at a time when the peace process is effectively dead and the entire region is in a state of flux, seems not only futile, but counterproductive.

Instead of continuing to cling to a formula that perpetuates Palestinian weakness and further hinders prospects for viable peace with Israel, the administration should seek to enable Palestinian national reconciliation in a way that both strengthens Abbas’ leadership and encourages Hamas’ political evolution. While some see risks in any formula that “legitimizes” Hamas, the risks of ignoring or isolating it — as though either Hamas or Gaza were somehow separate from the peace process — may be even greater.