Hamas Must Be Brought To The Table

August 03, 2009|By Eyad El-Sarraj

Where I live, optimism is often treated as a certifiable condition. But a recent meeting with Hamas leaders gives me hope for the future.

Long cast (sometimes with good reason) as narrow-minded and doctrinaire, the elected government of Gaza has begun to emerge from its bunker mentality and engage with the outside world. Israeli military strategists take credit for the shift. They want us to believe that last winter's massive attack, which left nearly 1,500 dead and caused billions of dollars in damage, broke the Islamic movement's will to resist.

Despite claims made by these theologians of brute force, it's actually an open hand rather than a closed fist that has made the difference. President Barack Obama has reached out to the Muslim world in a spirit of genuine reciprocity. Hamas takes seriously the words he uttered in Cairo: "There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground."

Two months after this historic speech, Hamas continues to wait for Washington to follow up words with deeds. Yet various well-informed Americans I have met during their visits to Gaza tell me that the ball is in the Hamas court. They say dialogue won't happen unless Hamas makes the first move and gives Mr. Obama something that he can sell politically.

I can understand the logic. Well-organized "pro-Israel" lobbying groups in the U.S. mock Mr. Obama as dangerously na?ve. To rebut charges he's cozying up to terrorists, he needs to show that he's negotiating hard and extracting concessions from Hamas.

For its part, Hamas feels that it has already offered a great deal. "We've agreed to accept the 1967 borders, which leaves us with only 22 percent of historic Palestine," a Hamas minister told me. "But every time we compromise, we're seen as weak and asked to bargain away more."

This stand-off threatens to become a default mode - accomplishing nothing - for both sides. The task at hand is to work out a deal that would help build mutual confidence while giving Mr. Obama the momentum he needs to push ahead in his efforts to freeze and then dismantle settlements.

The Obama administration could break the impasse through intervening on an issue of critical importance to Hamas: the continued imprisonment of its democratically elected parliamentarians. Following the Hamas win in the 2006 legislative race, which independent observers certified as free and fair, Israel arrested 52 of these victorious candidates. Such blatant disregard for the rule of law helped empower those within Hamas who argued that violence was the only language that Israel understood.

Just as Israel received blessings from the Bush administration to expand settlements, so did it receive a green light to lock up Hamas politicians. Mr. Obama has disassociated the U.S. from the first policy. He should now disown the second.

In return for the release of the 36 parliamentarians still imprisoned, Hamas should pledge publicly to a package agreement that includes a total ban on attacks on Israeli civilians and an across-the-board cease-fire for five years. This will allow peace to put down roots and create space for the conflicting parties to negotiate a final-status solution.

Mr. Obama's eloquence, intelligence and decency are helping to regenerate a Middle East landscape ruined during the eight previous years of misrule. Current Middle East envoy George Mitchell brokered a historic peace deal for Northern Ireland by including Sinn Fein in the negotiations. Mr. Obama can break the looming logjam with a similar step. Action that brings Hamas to the table is vital, or else the good will resulting from the Cairo speech will dissipate as naysayers conclude that the American president, despite his fine words, is every bit as incapable of bucking congressional critics and the Israel lobby as his predecessors.

Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj is the founder and president of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program and a commissioner of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights. His e-mail is eyadsarraj@gcmhp.net.

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