Inside Hamas’ Negotiating Strategy

The United States need to bring Hamas into the Middle East peace process.

While the Americans negotiators try to fend off a complete collapse of the one month old Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, other players in the conflict are hedging their bets and trying to predict what will happen next.

As of now, Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank has resumed, prompting colonists and far-right members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition to celebrate with open arms. Settler organizations are launching the resumption of building with a symbolic victory parade, releasing 2,000 balloons into the air to represent the 2,000 new apartment blocks that will be erected in the foreseeable future.

And all the while, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas is shamefully figuring out what to do next. He will go before the Arab League on Sunday to try to gain political cover for continuing the negotiations.

But there is another important Palestinian faction hedging its bets and preparing for its next move, despite the fact that the group is technically not a part of the negotiations. Hamas, which remains isolated from the peace talks despite its control of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, is in fact embracing an “all hands on deck” strategy.

A few weeks ago, I suggested that the killing of four Israeli settlers in the West Bank town of Hebron was a way for Hamas to remind the United States that it was a party to the conflict. Indeed, I stand by that judgment, however controversial it may be. But it also appears that the Hamas leadership is more than willing to play the nationalist card; Khaled Mashal, Hamas’ political leader, declared that it was high time for all Palestinian groups to come together.

Quoting the DPA story:

Mashal argued that internal reconciliation would make the Palestinians more powerful in negotiations, calling it a national necessity and the best way to react to the “Zionist intransigence.”

At first, Mashal’s comments seem to warrant a positive response. Abbas’ Fatah movement and the Islamist Hamas have been at each other’s throats for the past four years. The humiliating electoral defeat at the hands of Hamas still leaves a bad taste in the mouths of Fatah officials and the internal conflict between the two groups only worsened after Abbas’ forces were routed from the Gaza Strip.

In addition to the human calamity of Palestinian infighting, the lack of a unified movement leaves Palestinian negotiators in a very weak position vis-à-vis Israel. On one side of the table sits a strong prime minister, supported by the whole of the Israeli cabinet. On the other side, a weakened president who only governs around 65 percent of the Palestinian people. The odds aren’t good for any negotiator faced with a situation of such magnitude.

It is because of this unbalanced negotiating environment that American and Western negotiators have devised a new strategy. Rather than continue with the same old divide-and-conquer approach, the United States may find it necessary to get off its “high horse” by extending an “unclenched fist” toward the Hamas delegation.

Such a proposition is extremely hard to swallow for pro-Israel lobbyists and Washington insiders who have continued to evaluate Hamas exclusively through the prism of terrorism. Indeed, Hamas has perpetuated horrific crimes against innocent Israelis over the years and continues to do so. But refusing to draw Hamas into the peace process — or worse, discouraging Palestinian reconciliation — will prove to be far more detrimental to Israel, Palestine and the United States in the long run than any rocket attack.

No solution to the Middle East dispute will be sustainable unless all Palestinians are represented, Hamas included. Glancing at Daniel Byman’s latest essay in Foreign Affairs could perhaps serve as a working blueprint.