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The U.S., Hamas, and the Pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations and Former Deputy National Security Adviser for Middle Eastern Affairs, George W. Bush Administration; Robert Pastor, Professor of International Relations and Founder and Co-Director, Center for Democracy and Election Management, American University and Senior Adviser on Conflict Resolution and the Middle East, The Carter Center; Aaron David Miller, Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center

Date & Time

Oct. 5, 2009
10:00am – 11:30am

The U.S., Hamas, and the Pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Miller began the discussion by highlighting that one of the primary difficulties of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is dealing with a divided and dysfunctional Palestinian movement. He indicated it was critical that the Obama administration has made Israeli-Palestinian peace a top priority, including Obama's appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East. Even with a focus on peace negotiations, however, Miller pointed out that there are no good policy options with regard to dealing with the Hamas-Fatah rift, only a choice between bad and worse ones. Miller then outlined four possible US policy options regarding Hamas: containment, confrontation, cooptation and engagement. This negotiation process is beyond clever fixes and ambiguity, Miller stressed; what are required for a desirable peace outcome are clarity, a real strategy and strong leaders on all sides. Leadership is everything, Miller emphasized, and leaders are successful when they are "masters of their politics, not prisoners of their constituents."

Pastor continued the conversation by discussing the shifting US role from lawyer of Israel to credible broker in the region, especially with the appointment of Mitchell. One of the most contentious obstacles to peace, according to Pastor, is the extraordinary and highly secular settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. He stated that the Obama administration has been outstanding in its comprehensive approach to the peace process, underscoring Obama's decision to focus on settlements in particular. In dealing with Hamas, Pastor asked whether the group could be crushed or persuaded. Hamas' control of Gaza one day after the end of the three-week war there indicates the group cannot be crushed, he explained, but several signs of evolution indicate it can possibly be persuaded. The group now supports a two-state solution, is willing to restrain itself with a ceasefire agreement and has not actively advocated for the destruction of Israel, despite such language in their charter. Hamas must be a part of the peace process, argued Pastor, and complete Palestinian unity is not necessary for peace. While Palestinians are divided, he pointed to divisions in Israel and the United States as well. Paraphrasing a Mark Twain quote, Pastor concluded that while Obama may be on the right track, it is no time to sit still as you might get run over.

Abrams joined the discussion by arguing that the Obama administration's peace negotiations have already failed. Although they were not intended to weaken Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and strengthen Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Abrams claimed that the negotiations have had that effect. He went on to explain there has been a misunderstanding of facts on the ground and an obsession with settlements. For example, Abrams cited a recent International Peace Institute poll which indicated that Palestinians are more concerned with an evacuation of settlements rather than a settlement freeze. He also contended that the situation in the West Bank is promising, arguing the focus should be on the ground and not at the negotiating table. Abrams stated the economy is improving in the West Bank; there is greater mobility and more training of Palestinian police there as well. The United States should not change is approach to Hamas, he asserted, because it will encourage the region's most extreme elements and weaken its moderates. In addition, Abrams indicated negotiations with terrorists will work when they know they are beaten, and Hamas now believes it is winning.

Drafted by Kendra Heideman on behalf of the Middle East Program

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