The Magazine

Hobbling Hamas

Moving beyond the U.S. policy of Three No's.

Apr 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 27 • By ROBERT SATLOFF
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LAST WEEK, one of the world's deadliest terrorist organizations--the Islamic Resistance Movement, aka Hamas--announced that it has formed a cabinet and is now poised to take effective control of the Palestinian Authority, which governs Gaza and the Palestinian population of the West Bank. This comes two months after the group, responsible for killing hundreds of civilians, including 27 Americans, won a sizable plurality in Palestinian legislative elections and, with it, a crushing parliamentary majority.

Since the triumph of Hamas, the Bush administration has taken what appears to be a hard line. Washington's mantra is "no recognition, no dialogue, and no financial aid" to a Hamas-led PA until Hamas recognizes Israel, renounces violence and terror, and accepts all previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements.

But is this really such a hard-line position? The Palestinian Authority was established solely as a vehicle for the purpose of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict diplomatically, and the only claim it has on the U.S. Treasury is its contribution to that goal. Since Hamas leaders, without exception, confirm their objective of destroying the Jewish state, the administration would be hard-pressed to find a rationale for any policy more indulgent than the one it has adopted.

Indeed, on close inspection, the Three No's of U.S. policy actually mask a passive, often confused approach. This was most evident in the odd juxtaposition of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveling around the Middle East urging Arab governments to deny all funding to a Hamas-led PA--and James Wolfensohn, envoy of the Quartet (created in 2002 by the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations to spur Middle East peace), visiting those very same Arab capitals urging leaders to donate as much as they could to the PA. Washington may have terminated its own direct financial support of the PA, but it did little to stop America's European allies as well as the World Bank, in whose decisions the United States has a major say, from sending tens of millions of dollars to the same address.

At the core, the problem is that the Bush administration has a policy on Hamas but no real strategy. This reflects a deep ambivalence over whether the success of Hamas at the polls in the Palestinian election of January 25 poses a threat or offers an opportunity.

On the one hand, there is widespread sympathy for the view that the empowerment of Hamas is a grave danger to U.S. interests. It is transforming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a difficult, bloody, but theoretically resolvable nationalist conflict into an intractable, zero-sum religious war. Before our eyes, an Islamic Republic of Palestine is taking shape next door to Israel and on the borders of Israel's two treaty partners, Jordan and Egypt. Islamist radicals of all stripes--from the mullahs in Tehran to the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia to the jihadists of al Qaeda--are cheering the triumph of Hamas as the greatest political achievement of the new century. Now that the radicals' caliphate has a foothold at the gates of Jerusalem, all these bad actors can be expected to invest in the success of the Hamas experiment, each in its own nefarious way.

On the other hand, others in the administration hold out elections as the way to coopt Islamist political parties via the democratic process. To win power, Hamas had to accentuate a civic agenda of good, clean, responsible government; to keep power, argue the advocates of this view, Hamas will have to deliver on those promises. Along the way, Hamas will learn the hard truths that all ideological parties eventually learn. In Hamas's case, that means the price of political power is to shelve the goal of destroying Israel. While it is true that Hamas--like the Lebanese terrorist group cum political party Hezbollah--was permitted to win electoral legitimacy without giving up its weaponry or renouncing terrorism, circumstances will eventually compel it to do so. Such moderation, say supporters of this approach, is inevitable--or at least likely.

For President Bush, this is no arcane policy dispute. Because Hamas's victory leaves the president vulnerable on two key foreign policy themes of his administration--the fight against terror and the promotion of freedom in the Middle East--the political risks are high. After all, the president delivered a landmark speech four years ago in which he committed the United States to building a Palestinian leadership "not compromised by terror." Today, it is an obvious embarrassment that the Palestinian leadership--indeed, the PA cabinet--is made up of terrorists.