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Talking to the enemy


Jimmy Carter on CNN When the former US President Jimmy Carter visited the Middle East in April 2008 he was warned against making contact with terrorist groups.

Conventional wisdom asserts that talking to terrorists would give them legitimacy. This stance, however, is now challenged from within the US political establishment. The Democrats presidential nominee Barak Obama has openly called for talks with Iran, which Washington designates as a sponsor of international terrorism.

The Arab media hailed Carter for meeting the exiled Hamas leader, Khaled Masha'al, in Damascus. Carter's mission was seen as a positive step by most Arab commentators, but it contradicted US policy of not negotiating with terrorists.

Hamas is listed as a terrorist organisation by the United States, Israel and Australia. But there is more to Hamas than shelling Israeli civilians in the border town of Sderot, and conducting suicide bombings. Hamas won a democratically held election in January 2006 and formed a coalition government in the Palestinian Authority. This win came as a surprise to all, including Hamas. These election results were evidence of growing impatience among Palestinian voters with the lack of progress towards a sovereign Palestinian state.

Hamas capitalised on the growing popular resentment to gain a foothold in the political process. In a clear attempt to differentiate itself from the ruling Fatah of late Yasser Arafat, which was tainted for making repeated compromises with Israel to no avail, Hamas declared its commitment to the destruction of Israel.

This rhetoric was played down while Hamas was forced to form a coalition government with Fatah, but since the June 2007 break between the two Palestinian parties and the isolation of Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, Hamas has returned to its hard line anti-Israel stance.

There is no justification for this position. It is repugnant. But surely no-one really believes Hamas poses an existential threat to the State of Israel.

So what is the way forward? Israel has tried eliminating Hamas leaders by targeted assassinations, hoping that it could cripple the organisation. The Gaza Strip is kept sealed off by Israeli forces and electricity supplies are restricted. There are daily incursions into Gazan cities by Israeli forces to take out Hamas fighters.

But no-one seriously expects these measures to defeat Hamas. That is because Hamas has gained hero status among Palestinians, and the rest of the Arab world, for standing up to the might of Israel. If anything, continued Israeli assaults against Hamas only boost its popular image.

This brings up once again the uncomfortable question: what is to be done? Jimmy Carter has pointed to an alternative solution. If we accept that Hamas is not going to be eliminated from the political scene anytime soon, maybe we should be talking to its leaders and encouraging them to engage in the political process. At the end of the day, peace is not going to reign in Palestine or Israel if Hamas is excluded from negotiations.

That is an unpalatable feature of international politics: there is no room for moral judgements and ideological positions.

The United States, which has been the champion of moral outrage against Hamas terrorism and has refused to talk to its leaders, was also the state that put ideology aside in favour of Realpolitik when dealing with China. Henry Kissinger's visit to Communist China in 1971 was a watershed in Sino-US relations. This visit came less than two decades after a proxy war (with Communist China) in the Korean peninsular, and was concurrent with American military campaign in Indochina. By talking to the enemy, Washington found a way to reduce tensions in Sino-US relations and extradite the United States from Vietnam.

Ideological grandstanding has an emotive value. Both the US administration and Hamas have used it to bolster their position in relation to their constituency. But this is a dead-end policy. Unpalatable as talking to terrorists may be, Israel and the United States cannot ignore the fact that Hamas carries a popular mandate and has a tangible political objective that is enshrined in international law: national sovereignty of the Palestinian people.

The Carter Center
The Palestine Center

Shahram AkbarzadehAssociate Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh is Deputy Director of the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies, University of Melbourne, and co-author of US Foreign Policy in the Middle East: The Roots of Anti-Americanism.


Topic tags: Shahram Akbarzadeh, jimmy carter, Hamas, exiled Hamas leader, Khaled Masha'al, Palestine, Israel



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Existing comments

Shahram Akbarzadeh's argument in favour of talking to Hamas is reminiscent of the debates around whether or not to talk to the PLO in the 1980s.

I remember these debates well as I was one of the few Australian Jews who favoured speaking to the PLO to test out their willingness to negotiate a compromise agreement. In 1989, we organised a controversial public forum with visiting PLO representative Nabil Shaath which was televised on SBS.

There is, however, a major difference between the then PLO or Fatah and Hamas. The PLO leadership included a number of key players who had been trained in the Soviet Union, and were committed in principle to some form of western-style socialist beliefs. There was always at least some possibility of this group identifying common political and ideological group with the Israelis.

In contrast, Hamas are religious fundamentalists. Their founding charter signifies a hatred not only of Israel, but of all Jews. It is hard to see where common ground can be found.

Philip Mendes | 04 June 2008  

A superb article! Timely too to reflect on the reality that so many "terrorists" of yesteryear swapped their battle fatigues for suits as they transformed themselves subsequently into government leaders .... simply study the early terrorism that led to the establishment of modern day Israel ... a bloodstained and ugly page at that.

The US has said it seeks democracy in the Middle East, but it needs to recognise that essential democracy boils down to majority choice, and Hamas was the majority choice. Democracy cannot...must not... hinge on what may be preferable to the political agendas of the US and Israel.

Australia helped in the establishment of the UN and has been a good friend of Israel. Israel must not presume that its swift support of the Rudd government's bid for a seat in the Security Council means it has the Australian government or the Australian people in its pocket. It doesn't.

Between them, the US and Israel have made a mockery of the so-called road map to peace in the Middle East.

While battling corruption charges, Israel's Mr Olmert has given the green light to further settlement building in the Occupied territories ... flouting international law and the dictates of the UN.

That's ongoing, needless, provocation.

Brian Haill | 04 June 2008  

Jimmy Carter is a peace maker. Let us pray he can break through the differences and hatred.

James Fowler of Faith Development theory, and his team, interviewed Jimmy shortly after his term as President completed. They found him to be truly a peace maker. One who cares for all equally and attempts to unite differing points of view.

They actually invited Jimmy back for a second set of interviews to confirm their first results. They place Jimmy with Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and a very few others who see the good in all and start from there.

BS | 04 June 2008  

The US has been scared witles from any government that tries an independent of foreign interference policy. If the US system is superior it will come out in top. Why the scare of Cuba while the US promotes good relations with China which executes prisoners daily.

cor | 04 June 2008  

Should people who are Jewish be persecuted?

Should people who are Jewish so demean themselves as to persecute other people?

Should people who are Jewish conduct such persecutions if, six decades ago, the United Nations said it was alright?

That Hamas is a criminal, murderous organisation is beyond dispute. That Hamas' cause is justiied is, likewise, beyond dispute.

David Arthur | 05 June 2008  

I didn't know about this visit - it is really good news. I agree that Hamas was democratically elected and needs to be treated with more respect so that it can reduce its own grandstanding. thanks for this encouraging commentary.

Iain Radvan | 13 June 2008  

I wonder why Philip always forgets the terrorist jewish gangs who ethnically cleansed over 750,000 people off their land in revenge for other people killing many of them in other parts of the world.

Bibi wanted Hamas, funded Hamas and supported Hamas as an excuse not to talk to Arafat and Fatah, then when Arafat was murdered by Sharon (according to his former aid it was poison), they decided not to talk to Hamas.

Hamas was not a terrorist group until they won and election that Israel did not like.

Marilyn | 14 June 2008  

Thank you for your article! It prompts
me to write to you thinking that you might be interested in a recent publication of mine that makes the same point - albeit in a satirical fiction - that it is indispensable to talk with one's enemies.

As a mediator, facilitator, peacemaker, also deeply interested in opening people’s minds to see possibilities they’ve never considered before, I have recently published a thin and quite acclaimed booklet/teaching tool: a fictitious dialogue between President George W. Bush and Sheikh Osama bin Laden.

This 'crazy' dialogue - framed in a night dream - has only one objective: To stir people's and students' minds to begin considering the necessity of talking with one's enemy, to provoke them to begin thinking about this most critical topic, not only in the widest political context but also applied to their personal lives and specific circumstances in their communities.

Though I am pretty keen to get the information about my booklet out, I am most importantly interested to promote the idea of the necessity to talking with one’s enemies – real or presumed.

A brief feature article of mine about the wider topic is available here.

Noa Zanolli | 30 June 2008  

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