US Debate Over Hamas: Making a Bad Situation Worse

An internal debate is brewing within the Administration and Congress as to how to deal with the Hamas victory in recent Palestinian elections.

On the one side are those at the State Department advocating a moderate and pragmatic approach. They hope to craft a response that strengthens the position of Palestinian moderates and continues engagement with elements of the Palestinian Authority who support a negotiated two-state solution, while developing a medium-term strategy that will give internal Palestinian politics and Arab intervention time to move Hamas toward a more moderate, inclusive, and non-violent approach to governance.

On the other hand, there are hard-liners who appear to support a position advocated by the Israeli government and its US supporters. They seek to impose international isolation on Hamas and the PA, starving it of funds and support. In this way, they hope to create a backlash within the Palestinian community that will result in the collapse of the PA with either one of two outcomes: new elections which will bring chastened moderates back to power or create a leadership vacuum in the territories which will provide Israel unimpeded ability to impose its unilateral plans.

Evidence of this internal US debate comes from a number of sources and news accounts. At the press conference with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Rice refused to publicly endorse Livni’s "isolation and starvation" strategy. What emerged from their exchange was that this approach was on the table, but without US concurrence.

A few days later, however, the New York Times carried a front page story under the headline "US and Israel are Said to Talk of Hamas Ouster." Two sub-heads told the full story: "Cutoff of Aid and Taxes" and "Effort to have new votes if Group Refuses to Alter Its Current Stance." Based on leaks from within the US Administration, other sources confirm that those pushing for endorsement of this Israeli advocated position are supported by elements at the White House led by Vice President Cheney’s hawkish and pro-Likud National Security staff.

Denials of these leaks came immediately from both the US and Israel. But history has taught us that leaks often occur when there is an ongoing internal debate and the side that is losing decides to expose the debate in hopes of creating public pressure against the position of those with the upper hand. In such a context, history has also taught us to mistrust denials.

While these developments are occurring within the Administration, on Capitol Hill, Congress is also making an effort to put its stamp on US policy in the aftermath of the Hamas victory. Here, too, the moderates and hawks are at loggerheads.

The "moderates," in the Congressional meaning of the term, advocate passage of a Senate bill (Concurrent Resolution 79) which consists of one straightforward sentence reading "no United States assistance should be provided directly to the Palestinian Authority if any representative political party holding a majority of parliamentary seats within the Palestinian Authority maintains a position calling for the destruction of Israel."

Supported by some hawks and doves alike because it allows Congress to make clear its dislike for Hamas, while doing little to tie the hands of the Administration. It is, after all, only a "sense of Congress" resolution and is, therefore, not binding. It does not cut US aid to the Palestinian people and it does not remove the President’s authority to release aid to the PA, if conditions warrant.

Opposed to this "toothless" effort, are a number of bills and letters circulating in the House of Representatives, one of the more prominent being House Resolution (HR 4681), a bill whose sweeping provisions are so extensive and regressive that the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) would become more tabooed in the US today than they were in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Given these two poles of the debate within the White House and Congress, it is fair to say that the Hamas victory has made an already bad situation worse. In its aftermath, Israel can now claim justification for their brutal unilateralism. Meanwhile, the Administration debates moving from a past policy that could do more than offer mild disapproval of Israeli behavior (thus enabling bad behavior) to active collaboration. And Congress, never balanced in its approach, continues to deliberate between the bad and the worst.

There is, of course, blame enough to go around, with Israel, the US, and the PA each playing a role in bringing us to this state of affairs. But, in no way, can Hamas be absolved of responsibility. Their exploitation of theology and the oppression of their people and justify their outrageous use of suicide bombers against innocents and their deliberate efforts to undercut the PA’s authority served to give Israel the pretext it desired to intensify the occupation, nullify their peace process commitments, and de-legitimizing the PA. In a sense, Hamas and Israel’s Likud have long been partners in a tragic tango of death and repression.

Given this, what next must be done?

Certainly not the approach advocated by Israel’s foreign minister or the advocates of HR 4681. From Israel’s expulsion of Hamas leaders in 1992 until now, the policy of repression has only strengthened extremism. Just as Israel’s right-wing has absorbed each suicide bombing and become stronger, so too, Hamas has absorbed efforts to punish and isolate and used the resultant discontent to fuel their movement.

US and international aid should continue while internal Palestinian negotiations between PA President Abbas and Hamas continue over the shape that a new government will take. Support for moderates will encourage moderation, while punishing the Palestinian people or their elected government will only cause extremism to grow.

Of course what is recommended here will do nothing to improve the Palestinian situation, it will only keep it from worsening. What would make it better would be a change in US policy that puts direct pressure on Israel to cease its brutal occupation policies, destructive settlement, road, and wall building activities and enter into honest negotiations with Palestinians with an eye toward implementing UN Security Council Resolution 242 and subsequent agreements signed by the two parties. This will take the initiative away from extremists on both sides and give moderates a chance to win. Given the nature of US politics, however, such a shift is unlikely any time soon.