Haass and Hamas

Richard N. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations. His last position in government was director of policy planning in the State Department, during the first couple of years of the Bush administration. The buzz in Washington is that Haass could be named special envoy for Arab-Israeli issues. The New York Times asked Haass about it for today’s edition, and he says he hasn’t been approached, but is flattered by the attention.

Read this exchange with Haass, which took place on the NewsHour:

Jim Lehrer: So what can be done about Hamas? Who can stop this?

Richard Haass: I think the key thing there that you’re probably never going to satisfy them politically, indeed, you wouldn’t want to satisfy them politically…

Lehrer: Why?

Haass: The goals of many people, in groups like Hamas, is a one-state solution, and that state isn’t Israel. It’s a Palestinian state that’s based upon probably Islamic precepts.

Lehrer: So there’s no way to negotiate with Hamas. That’s what you’re saying. Forget that?

Haass: I agree with that. That’s an important point. There are some groups out there you can negotiate with. You have to decide whether there are terms you can live with. But groups like Hamas, they have political agendas that I would suggest are beyond negotiation. And for them, and as a result there’s not a political answer—there’s got to be an intelligence, a law enforcement, and a military answer.

Exactly. Haass got it just right—back in 2003, the year of that interview, when he’d just come out of government and was presumably well-informed. But Haass subsequently had a complete change of heart. In 2006, in an article in Foreign Affairs, he wrote this:

U.S. officials ought to sit down with Hamas officials, much as they have with the leaders of Sinn Féin, some of whom also led the Irish Republican Army. Such exchanges should be viewed not as rewarding terrorist tactics but as instruments with the potential to bring behavior in line with U.S. policy.

What would make Hamas so amenable to this “behavior” modification? The United States would “articulate those principles it believes ought to constitute the elements of a final settlement, including the creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines…. The more generous and detailed the plan, the harder it would be for Hamas to reject negotiation and favor confrontation.”

To the best of my knowledge, Haass has never given any explanation for this total about-face. What has Hamas done or said since 2003, to transform it from a group “beyond negotiation,” deserving of a “military answer,” to a group that might accept negotiation and line up with U.S. policy? What sort of “details” about a Palestinian state in 1967 borders, and what degree of “generosity,” does Haass think are required to separate Hamas from what he himself once described as its implacable devotion to the elimination of Israel? I’m waiting for the evidence (and for the logic behind the analogy between Hamas and the Sinn Féin, which has been demolished many times, even by a current fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations).

Just recently, Haass cooperated with Martin Indyk of the Saban Center at Brookings, in authoring the opening chapter of a joint Council-Brookings recipe book on Middle East policy for the new administration. Indyk apparently had a restraining effect on Haass, but the idea of dialogue with Hamas survived all the same. The authors complain that “Bush’s boycott of Hamas, after it freely and fairly won the Palestinian elections, enabled America’s opponents in the Arab and Muslim worlds to raise the banner of ‘double standards.'” They go on to say that “given its [Hamas’s] control of Gaza and its support among at least one-third of Palestinians, a peace process that excludes it is bound to fail.” (In the Foreign Affairs version of this chapter, they hedge and write “could well fail.”) And they end up proposing that if Hamas keeps a ceasefire with Israel, and reconciles with the Palestinian Authority, “the next president should deal with the joint Palestinian leadership as well as authorize low-level contact with Hamas in Gaza.”

This constitutes a wholesale abandonment of every one of the Quartet’s three conditions for diplomatic engagement with Hamas: recognition of Israel, renunciation of terrorism and violence, and acceptance of previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and obligations, including the Roadmap. What’s the justification for this? Is it that Hamas seized power in Gaza, and has made itself a spoiler by acquiring and firing thousands of rockets into Israel, each of which is intended to kill at random? If so, then say so. Instead Haass maintains that “such exchanges should be viewed not as rewarding terrorist tactics.” Well, if every single one of the Quartet’s conditions gets whittled away to nothing, why shouldn’t Hamas view it as a reward for its tactics? After all, the tactics haven’t changed.

Hamas must derive enormous encouragement from our vacillation. We set conditions; Hamas rejects them and continues to practice its “resistance”; so we drop our conditions in the name of some strategic master plan (e.g., “democracy,” the “peace process”). This happened during the Bush administration, when Hamas was allowed to run in Palestinian elections without meeting any of the conditions of an earlier Israeli-Palestinian agreement, which banned “any candidates, parties or coalitions… [that] commit or advocate racism or pursue the implementation of their aims by unlawful or nondemocratic means.” Hamas came into elections strutting guns and preaching incitement—and won. Why should they drop any of their cherished principles, when they see their adversaries seriously thinking about dropping their own? We insist that they reconcile with the PA. What if they don’t? Why shouldn’t they imagine we’ll eventually dump that condition too?

I have nothing against Richard Haass, and I’m sure that as an accomplished diplomat, he would faithfully serve administration policy. His views probably have evolved, especially over the past couple of weeks, during which he’s put in a few admirable performances in the media (for example). But his appointment at this time—as special envoy to Israel and the Arabs, of all things—might send the wrong signal, stiffening the resolve of Hamas at a time when Israel is trying to change the game. Send the right signal instead.

Update, January 13: The prospective Haass appointment, which got bounced around in the mainstream media for several days, originated in the blogosphere. Leslie Gelb explains how it got legs. He adds:

Stephen Walt called the Haass appointment “about the best us realists could expect.” Coming from the co-author with John Mearsheimer of a recent book that argued that the pro-Israeli Jewish lobby dominates U.S. policy on the Mideast to the detriment of American interests, this was a kiss of death—if Haass ever was being considered.