The stick-and-stick approach has failed

As attempts to revive a political process between Palestinians and Israelis gather steam, it is useful to look at past, failed attempts to draw lessons. One conclusion that can be reached is that not only should Hamas be part of a political process; any such process will not be successful without the movement.

For starters, Hamas won the last parliamentary elections. It then ousted Palestinian Authority security forces in Gaza. It is simply too influential and powerful to be ignored. However, its strength and influence are not the only reasons it must be included.

Over the past years, Hamas has sent several signals to the parties of the political process that it is in fact interested in participating. The first such signal came from the movement’s founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who accepted the idea of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders to live without hostility alongside Israel. He proposed the idea of a long-term "hudna" to describe this state of affairs.

Then there was the 2007 Saudi-sponsored Mecca Agreement between Fateh and Hamas. That agreement saw the main Palestinian factions form a unity government under Hamas with a political platform that explicitly accepted and respected international legality and the relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions as well as the Arab initiative. It committed the unity government to a political process and a rejection of violence.

Probably, the last in this line of signals was the June 25 speech by the head of Hamas’ political bureau, Khalid Mishaal, who praised the Cairo speech of US President Barrack Obama, expressed a willingness to enter into a dialogue with the United States and reiterated Hamas’ support for the idea of a two-state solution.

The problem is that all these signals have never been reciprocated either by Israel or the US. This has left Hamas with little incentive and weakened the more moderate elements in the movement. In fact, the approach of the international community in dealing with Hamas has been a stick-and-stick approach. That is probably a result of the unholy alliance that recently existed between the very right-wing US administration under George W. Bush and the equally right-wing Israeli government headed by Ariel Sharon. These two governments were ideological rather than pragmatic in the way they dealt with Hamas.

Oddly, that approach was implemented in parallel to a policy toward the Palestinian Authority that weakened Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate president of the PA, rather than strengthening him. Thus, the Israeli government refused to deal with Abbas as a partner for peace, rendering him to a certain extent irrelevant, and consequently strengthened the argument of the more radical elements in Hamas.

With Palestinian factions currently engaged in a painful reconciliation process sponsored by Egypt, now might not be the time for the international community to engage directly with Hamas. Nevertheless, international actors should help stimulate the Palestinian national dialogue by offering incentives to the different factions to agree to form a unity government. Such a government is an absolute prerequisite for progress in any political process with Israel.

Such international incentives will also encourage the relatively moderate elements in Hamas and weaken their opponents inside the movement. The most important such incentive would be the willingness of the United States and Israel to deal directly with any national unity government that includes both Fateh and Hamas.