Hamas is central to Israeli security and Palestinian politics, yet the international community refuses to work with it. This is a mistake — Israel, the United States, and others should exploit Hamas’ vulnerabilities with a mix of coercion and concessions.
DANIEL BYMAN is a Professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and a Senior Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of the forthcoming book A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism. www.ForeignAffairs.com.
The biggest obstacle to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is not the Palestinians’ demand that Jewish settlements in the West Bank be dismantled, the barrier separating much of the West Bank from Israel, or the recent rightward shift of the Israeli body politic. It is the emergence of Hamas as the de facto government of the Gaza Strip, where 1.5 million Palestinians reside.
Hamas has regularly attacked Israel with rockets from Gaza or allowed others to do so. It poses a strong and growing political threat to the more moderate Palestinian Authority, which is led by President Mahmoud Abbas and his technocratic prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and which governs the West Bank and used to run Gaza, too. Whereas PA leaders see negotiations with Israel and institution building as the best way to ultimately gain statehood, Hamas seeks to undermine the peace process. Many Hamas members have not reconciled themselves to the Jewish state’s existence. Hamas’ leaders also fear that Hamas would reap none of the benefits of a peace deal and that in the event of one, the PA would score political points at their expense. Hamas has shown repeatedly that it can bring talks to a painful end by castigating moderate Palestinians and turning to violence.
Despite Hamas’ centrality to Israeli security and Palestinian politics, Washington still clings to the policy that the Bush administration established after Hamas beat more moderate Fatah candidates in elections in Gaza in 2006. The United States and other members of the international community withdrew development aid from Gaza, tacitly supporting Israel’s shutdown of the Gaza Strip, and refused to work directly with Hamas. Their hope was to force Hamas’ collapse and bring Fatah back to power. But isolation has failed, and today Hamas is far stronger than when it first took power. The Obama administration, more by default than by design, has continued these efforts to isolate and weaken Hamas, opposing talks with the group and condoning Israeli military raids.