Middle East Brief Comments

Comment by: Dan Shapiro
Regarding: Jeremy Pressman, “United States’ Policy Toward Hamas: An Initial Assessment,” Middle East Brief 7, June 2006.

My Brandeis ’91 classmate Jeremy Pressman does a fine job presenting the dilemmas facing U.S. policymakers in the wake of Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian elections. Deep and widespread humanitarian suffering among Palestinians, with the resulting instability and possible increase in support for Hamas it brings, clearly runs counter to broader U.S. regional interests. However, so does the prospect of lowering the barriers to legitimacy that Hamas faces, in the form of the conditions set by the Quartet. The lesson that one need not renounce terrorism to be considered a legitimate political actor will not be lost on a range of radical groups in the Middle East.

But I take issue with one of Professor Pressman’s conclusions, namely that the U.S. Congress stands as the most formidable obstacle to a more calibrated U.S. policy toward Hamas. In the first instance, and to state the obvious, H.R. 4681, despite having passed the House, has not yet become law. As Pressman notes, the Senate companion bill, S. 2370, lacks a number of the the House bill’s farther reaching provisions, and further refinements continue to be negotiated in advance of full Senate consideration. Once in conference, the legislation will be further shaped by the presence of Administration negotiators, who will press for the full complement of waivers, triggers, and other flexibility measures that the Executive Branch (under administrations of every stripe) always seeks. The result is likely to be a law with more bark than bite, largely preventing the Administration from doing only that which it has no intention of doing anyway, namely providing any funding to Hamas elements of the Palestinian Authority.

The far greater constraints on refinements in U.S. policy are: 1) President Bush’s oft-articulated belief that a global struggle is underway between the forces of democracy and the forces of jihadism; 2) the nature of Hamas; and 3) the state of internal Palestinian politics. The first of these, while clearly challenged by Hamas’ success in a clean election process, makes it nearly impossible for the United States to give Hamas the breathing space it seeks. To do so would seem to send a message to jihadists everywhere that success at the ballot box will be rewarded with legitimacy, even if hate-filled ideologies and terrorism remain central to their program. And in all fairness to this view, Hamas has done nothing to suggest it is revisiting its commitment to Israel’s destruction or its willingness to use terrorism when it believes doing so serves its interests. Clearly something more substantial than the vague and conflicting formulations of various Hamas leaders will be required for the United States to consider even a proxy engagement with Hamas. Finally, it is questionable whether the fundamental divisions in Palestinian politics can be significantly lessened by the provision of U.S. and European aid now absent. A President Abbas strengthened by this aid (which assumes he could avoid appearing as a tool of the U.S. and Israel) might well inspire Hamas to wage the internal battle for influence even harder. And Abbas, with the best of intentions, might well prove ineffective in reining in Fatah loyalists who see a chance to weaken Hamas. In either case, factional fighting and instability in the West Bank and Gaza is as likely to increase as decrease.

In the end, preventing a humanitarian crisis among Palestinians might be reason enough to find alternative mechanisms to provide assistance. But believing that, under present conditions, such aid will lay the groundwork for a renewed negotiating process remotely acceptable to either the United States or Israel, is not supported by the evidence.

The views expressed here are my own. I look forward to continuing the discussion with Professor Pressman and others.