It's Time For Israel and the U.S. to Address Hamas' Political Wing

The recently held rally in the Gaza Strip for Fatah — the Palestinian political party that has formed the core of the government based in the West Bank — would have been unthinkable just a month ago. The long running feud between Fatah and rival Hamas has polarized Palestinian politics and made unified negotiations with Israel impossible.

Some political watchers are calling the rally, which estimates say drew anywhere from 300,000 to 1.2 million people out of Gaza's estimated population of 1.7 million, a major step forward in reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas. Other Palestinian political experts are more guarded, saying that fundamental ideological differences over strategy vis-à-vis Israel remain in the way. But either way, the rally shows the increasing need for Israel and the United States to recognize the political realities of the Middle East and enter into talks with Hamas without conditions — if both sides are serious about coming to a working arrangement in the Palestinian—Israeli conflict.

The United States has long had a policy of not negotiating with terrorist groups, and with Hamas designated as an official Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the State Department, US-led mediation between Israel and the Palestinians have been exclusively with Fatah. But as demonstrated in the 2006 Palestinian elections — which the Bush administration initially supported until Hamas emerged as the overwhelming victor — the political aspirations of people at the grassroots level must have a seat at the negotiating table for any genuine progress in the peace process to be possible. Ignoring fundamental political realties as they change in favor of "stability" or a desired outcome can be dangerous and have unintended consequences, a phenomenon illustrated clearly by the Arab Spring and its consequences for the new realities of the Middle East.

Making a move to enter into negotiations with Palestinian political actors beyond Fatah would not only serve to recognize a reality that has been brutally apparent for over 6 years now, but would also benefit Israel in a number of ways. It would give the Israelis, and U.S. mediators, leverage in future talks with the Palestinians by proving wrong the perception that Israel is not serious about peace, and help to allay ever-present international criticism of Israel. This would also curry favor diplomatically in capitals around the world, at the United Nations, and with the Quartet, the party of six actors involved in negotiations, an advantage that would potentially prove beneficial to Israel as it attempts to build an international consensus around other key geopolitical challenges, the center of which being Iran.

Though a move to allow Hamas to be a party in talks might indeed have the unintended effect of giving the radical Islamist group some desired legitimacy, this can be offset if Israel sets a political precedent for utilizing engagement as a key negotiating strategy. By making it known that future political engagement would not be biased by selective interpretations of political realities, Israel can smartly and correctly communicate that its standard of engagement would be driven by a determination of who the political actors relevant to its national interest are, and not necessarily by who it deems as "legitimate" or "just."

Undoubtedly, the armed military wing of Hamas has and continues to engage in acts of terrorism, launching thousands of rockets into civilian areas of Israel and prompting a justified military response by Israel that punish only Palestinian civilians. The United States and Israel should, however, make a more nuanced distinction between the political and military elements of the organization; some analysts say Hamas' political leaders are not uniformly in command over the better-known military activities of the organization. This complex dynamic is critical for the future of the peace process, and while the armed wing of Hamas should remain designated as a terrorist group, the political wing should be the point of communication. The historic negotiations between the United Kingdom and the Irish Republican Army's political wing that led to the Good Friday Agreement which ended armed hostilities in Northern Ireland shows the real progress that can be made through making a distinction between the elements of the opposing actor.

It won't be popular, and would be a complex move, but the U.S. and Israel must come to grips with the political evolution that has taken place in the past 6 years with the Palestinian people. The recent rally in the Gaza Strip, whatever it may mean about the future prospects of unification between Fatah and Hamas, shows why talks with the former must be expanded to include the latter. Already, some in Israel are coming to this recognition, setting reasonable preconditions for entering into talks with Hamas. Besides providing diplomatic leverage and expanding the options of negotiations, it may prove to be the best chance in a generation for the success of "peace" — albeit, an icy, crude "peace." As Dov Waxman of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs puts it, "Hamas is unlikely to ever become a partner for peace with Israel, but it can be a partner for coexistence, albeit a limited and uneasy coexistence."