Facing Hamas and Hezbollah

Facing Hamas and Hezbollah

US diplomacy in the Middle East has been held hostage by a refusal to engage with these two popular movements.


One sunny morning in September 1993 I sat on the White House lawn, watching bemused as American political notables lined up for a “grip and grin” photo with Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. For twenty-five years previously–and until just days before that morning’s signing of the Oslo Accord–Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization had been judged by the US government to be a “foreign terrorist organization.” On Capitol Hill and in most of the mainstream media, the excoriation of Arafat and the PLO had been long-lasting and virulent. But now, here were scores of Congressional leaders and media bigwigs lining up to be part of the new pro-Oslo zeitgeist.

What made the difference was that the Israeli government had shifted its stance. When that shift was made public, virtually the entire US political class turned on a dime. Today two very significant forces in the Middle East–Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon–are in nearly the same position the PLO was locked into before the early 1990s. Indeed, this time the United States is more directly participating in hostile actions against the current “untouchables” than it ever was against the pre-Oslo PLO. After Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006, the Bush Administration orchestrated a harsh boycott of the new Hamas-led government, which left Washington’s “pro-democracy” stance in the Middle East in tatters. Then in summer 2006, when Israeli airplanes and artillery were trying to wipe Hezbollah–and much of Lebanon’s national infrastructure–off the map, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice worked overtime to prevent the Security Council from calling a cease-fire.

Our country’s diplomacy has been held hostage to Israel’s preference to fight rather than engage with these two significant movements. But the United States has its own extremely pressing interests in the Middle East. Key among these are the need to find a way to withdraw from Iraq and radically de-escalate tensions with Iran in order to minimize US losses and lethal disorder in the region. There are many close links between the Persian Gulf and the Arab-Israeli theater. As the Baker-Hamilton report of last year rightly noted, if Washington wants to avoid catastrophe in Iraq, it must be prepared to undertake a vigorous and effective push for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Recently, the Bush Administration has attempted to look as if it is doing something on this issue. Bush and Rice are trying to organize a November summit in Annapolis to be attended by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The Administration is also hoping for high-level representation from the Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia. But Washington has deliberately excluded Hamas. Indeed, the current moves are intended to weaken Hamas, which is often portrayed as merely a tool of an irredeemably hostile Iran.

Hamas and Hezbollah have both been on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations for many years. After 9/11, that designation became even more constricting as the Administration threw huge new resources into attacking the financing and propaganda/information mechanisms of a range of Islamist groups it had designated as targets in the “war on terror.” The launching of this new concept completely blurred the distinction between those groups that, like Al Qaeda, aptly fit the description of “rootless cosmopolitans” and those that, like Hamas and Hezbollah, are deeply rooted within stable national communities to which they provide real services and to which they hold themselves accountable.

During the wave of decolonizations that occurred in the three decades after 1945, nearly all the decolonizing governments ended up negotiating the transition with leaders of movements that for years had been excluded from political participation (and usually also ruthlessly repressed and attacked) on the grounds that they were “terrorists.” In the more recent past, the successful peace processes in South Africa and Northern Ireland started in earnest only when the ruling governments agreed to talk with opposition groups previously designated as terrorists. In both cases, the only criteria for inclusion were that participants agree to a cease-fire and participate in elections. The movements concerned–the African National Congress (ANC) and its allies in South Africa, and Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland–were notably not required, as a prerequisite for the inclusion of the political wing in negotiations, either to disarm or to change their founding platforms in any way. South Africa’s Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) took part in the talks without being required to change their simple platform of “One [white] settler, one bullet.”

In Palestine, Hamas participated peacefully, in good faith and with notable success, in the 2006 elections. From early 2005 onward it had, along with the other big Palestinian organization, Fatah, adhered to a unilateral cessation of attacks against Israel–which was not, alas, reciprocated by Israel. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has participated peacefully and skillfully in every national election since 1992, most recently winning fourteen seats out of 128 in summer 2005. (The party’s support in the country is greater than those numbers suggest. The numbers of seats available to the Lebanese Shiites who form its main base is artificially small.) Hezbollah members have been ministers in Lebanese governments. Regarding its readiness and ability to observe a cease-fire, more than fifteen years have passed since Hezbollah used its weapons against any other authentically Lebanese movement. In addition, from 1996 to July 2006 it maintained its side of cease-fires negotiated indirectly with Israel.

Hezbollah contravened the cease-fire regime by infiltrating Israel and capturing two Israeli soldiers in the summer of 2006 (Israel had also contravened it, numerous times). In response, Israel launched a massive retaliation, attacking not only Hezbollah-related targets but major elements of the country’s civilian infrastructure. At the time, as in the similar assault Israel undertook in 1996, Israeli leaders said publicly that their goal was to turn the people and government of Lebanon against Hezbollah. As in 1996, the attempt backfired, and Israel ended up having to negotiate an end to hostilities on terms that fell far short of its original goals. Indeed, Hezbollah possibly emerged from the war stronger than it had been before the hostilities. The organization and its charismatic leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, gained prestige all over the Arab world, including among many Sunni Arabs. The August 2006 cease-fire has remained remarkably durable ever since.

At this point, both Hamas and Hezbollah have shown by their actions that (1) they are capable of winning and holding the allegiance of a substantial portion of their national communities, as demonstrated in free and fair elections; and (2) they are willing to enter into cease-fires with Israel and are capable of exerting the internal discipline required to abide by them. If the Middle East were South Africa or Northern Ireland, we would conclude that they have more than met the conditions for inclusion in peace talks. But when Israel is involved, the US political class continues to make the extraordinary and unrealistic demands that before these organizations can be included in any political process they must completely disarm, both physically and ideologically–just like the PLO before them. (No parallel demand is placed on Israel.) Meanwhile, pending these organizations’ complete compliance with the demands, nearly all US politicians hew to the position that it is quite all right to join with Israel in inflicting harsh, in many cases lethal, collective punishment on the 1.5 million Palestinians of the Gaza Strip, and in using covert intervention in Lebanon to whittle away at Hezbollah’s power there.

What actions have either of these organizations ever taken against the United States and its interests? In the case of Hamas, none. Yes, it is true that US citizens visiting or living in Israel were killed or maimed during the suicide-bombing campaigns Hamas launched against Israel in the 1990s. But those Americans were not targeted because of their US citizenship, any more than Palestinian-Americans harmed by Israel’s actions in the West Bank or Gaza were targeted because of their US citizenship.

At the rhetorical level, meanwhile, Hamas’s leaders–like their confreres, the leaders of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood–are at pains to point out that they have no grievance against the American people. They firmly dissociated themselves from the 9/11 attacks–both at the time and since. But the Hamas leaders do ask why so many US politicians of both parties continue to be so one-sided in their support of Israel and so strongly biased against the Palestinians. One Hamas parliamentarian I interviewed in Ramallah last year argued that Americans should be glad to deal with Hamas, because “we are the moderates in the Islamist movement.”

Hezbollah’s case is a little more complex. The party was created in 1985 through the amalgamation of a number of armed resistance networks that grew up in opposition to the Israeli occupation of their country. (If there had been no 1982 Israeli invasion, there would be no Hezbollah today.) Before 1985 some of the pre-Hezbollah networks included people who, judging that the United States had supported Israel’s invasions of Lebanon in 1978 and 1982 and Israel’s proxy forces within Lebanon–and determined to end what they considered a hostile US military presence in their country–chose to punish the United States. In 1983-84 those networks used car and truck bombs in lethal attacks against the US Embassy (twice), against the barracks housing US Marines serving in a US-led peacekeeping force and against other US targets in Lebanon. When Hezbollah was formed, it focused its armed operations much more tightly on opposing Israeli occupation forces rather than against US or other Western targets there. At the rhetorical level, Hezbollah to this day holds to a clearly recognizable anti-imperialist position that sees the United States as “the heir to the Old Imperialism” and sees Israel as part of what it considers a US imperial plan in the Middle East. But it has not done anything to operationalize that analysis by attacking US targets either inside or outside Lebanon. There have been some allegations that Hezbollah has sent military advisers to train anti-US militias in Iraq, but these reports have never been confirmed (and given that Hezbollah’s closest links in Iraq are with organizations affiliated with the government installed by the United States, they have a general implausibility). Like the leaders of Hamas, the leaders of Hezbollah also sharply dissociated themselves from the 9/11 attacks.

No aspect of Hamas’s or Hezbollah’s current policies should prevent Washington from dealing with either organization. Remember that when South Africa’s apartheid government agreed to talk with the ANC, the PAC and other armed anti-apartheid groups, these groups were still–up to the time the negotiation-related cease-fire went into effect–actively targeting government installations and, in the case of the PAC, white citizens throughout the country. The same was true in the Northern Ireland talks and in all the negotiations over preceding decades that led to the freeing of scores of Third World countries from the shackles of colonialism. Contrary to what many American commentators seem to believe, sitting down to negotiate with another party does not indicate agreement with it but merely a pragmatic recognition that it is a force that must be engaged in the search for a solution. It should be noted that in Iraq the United States has now started to deal directly with tribal and political groups that were until recently involved in the guerrilla resistance against the US occupation.

American negotiators should seek forums within which they can engage representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah–along with other relevant parties such as Syria–so that all these players can energetically probe exactly how to resolve the remaining strands of the Arab-Israeli conflict in a way that is fair to everyone and gives all sides a path to a peaceful future. This is not a pipe dream. As long as Washington refuses to do this, the search for peace in the Middle East will be fruitless, because no sustainable peace can be built in defiance of the millions of Palestinians and Lebanese who support these two movements.

The strong bias that Washington has shown toward Israel for some four decades has served our country poorly. It continues to weaken US interests in the Middle East and far, far beyond. There are no signs that the Bush Administration’s current round of coercive Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy will lead to an agreement more sturdy or sustainable than previous partial and unsuccessful agreements. If the United States is incapable of maintaining a fair-minded position in Israeli-Arab diplomacy, it should give up its dominant role. The United Nations could then take over, instead of acting as a junior partner in a US-led “Quartet” of powers, as at present. But whoever leads the peace-brokering will have to realize there can be no peace in the Middle East without somehow including Hezbollah and Hamas in the process.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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