The Blowback from Ostracizing Hamas
The Blowback from Ostracizing Hamas

The Blowback from Ostracizing Hamas

If they merely intended to repeat the Quartet's triple mantra, the three Middle East envoys on a regional tour should have spared themselves the trouble. The UN mission to the region headed by Kofi Annan's Special Political Advisor, Vijay Nambiar, will only propel the Middle East faster over the brink if they continue the policy of excluding key political players.

With the world's eyes on Lebanon, the temptation for mediators is to focus on damage limitation there. But Hamas's crisis was one of the justifications that Hezbollah invoked in igniting the northern front, and deescalation in Gaza and the West Bank could puncture the movement's claim it is fighting for the Palestinians. Preventing conflict in Gaza limits the fighting to one front, and above all, also has the merit of being an easier goal to achieve.

The prime obstacle to trying is international reluctance to throw Hamas the lifeline that a negotiated ceasefire provides. Since winning a parliamentary election six months ago, Hamas has failed to match its domestic legitimacy with international legitimacy. Islamist offers of engagement with Israel were spurned not just by Israel, but also by the region's key power-brokers. In the recent prisoners' document, its leadership formally embraced — for the first time — the notion of negotiating a settlement. To no avail. Lured into the political process in order to tame it, Hamas and its subject population remain subject to a punitive boycott.

But the boycott has not worked. As Crisis Group repeatedly warned, without diplomatic engagement a return to violent engagement was only a matter of time. Frustrated in its efforts to work through such conventional institutions as parliament and government, the movement is resorting to more tried and tested modes of expression. The unsavory language of fear and hate, which had begun to recede, is back.

Paradoxically, Hamas's attacks are aimed not at breaking the cease-fire, but at restoring it, albeit on different, reciprocal terms. Its attack on a military base adjoining one of the crossings — which turn Gaza's supply-lines on and increasingly off like a valve — and the capture of an Israeli soldier were designed to lure Israel and the international community to the bargaining table, not shove them away. That was hardly a commendable tactic. But while gambling on the prospect of escalation, they also reasoned that at some point, when either Israeli or more likely Palestinian and Arab suffering reached a new threshold, the international community would call a halt.

That threshold has long been crossed. Yet, still, the international community remains on the sidelines. What effective and timely diplomacy might have curbed, passivity and dithering helped to escalate into a deadly game of brinkmanship. Shackled by their self-imposed restrictions on dealing with Hamas, global powers turned bystanders, discarding their leverage or influence. Today, there is no referee, linesman or even biased broker. Those who suggest alternative tactics, such as shuttling between the warring parties and meeting Hamas leaders, are scared off by Washington. Hundreds of people in Gaza, Haifa and Beirut have already been killed whose lives might have been spared by diplomacy.

Israel's current two-pronged offensive is in part motivated by memories of its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. After a few months summer fighting, the Begin government successfully evicted the PLO senior command from Beirut. But unlike the PLO, the Islamists in Lebanon and Palestine are not outsiders. Even if they could be bombed out of power, they cannot be bombed from the region. Underground and excluded, they will continue to exercise the veto over regional stability and a political process they maintained throughout the 1990s.

When a policy is backfiring badly, it is time to rethink. By imposing a series of one-sided conditions on Hamas, the UN, the United States, Europe and Russia have backed themselves into a corner that is jeopardizing their stated aim — the negotiated pursuit of two states between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan. If the U.S. and the EU are unwilling to circumvent or suspend their self-imposed inhibition on who they can talk to, they should at a minimum not prevent others from doing so. For the UN envoys to have the slightest chance of success, they need to be able to deal with everyone: Israelis and Syrians but also Hamas leaders in Damascus, the West Bank and Gaza. If conflict resolution is what their mission is about, that is the least they can do.

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