If America can talk to the Taliban, why can’t Israel talk to Hamas? Stephen ORYSZCZUK looks at the history of engagement and the flagging reasons why Israel still refuses to sit down with Gaza’s leaders.
As the United States found this week, there comes a time to talk to terrorists.
Like it or lump it, the Taliban will need to sign off on Afghanistan’s future if the bloodshed is to stop. They may even end up in power again, alongside tribal militias in some (initially) amenable structure.
We squirm because Western blood has been spilled, but negotiation is now the only way to peace. Had we, in 1974, been told of Sinn Fein’s future power-sharing in Northern Ireland, we would likely have squirmed then as well.
There comes a time to talk to terrorists because – as in Afghanistan and Northern Ireland – there comes a time when the armed forces can do no more. At this stage, it is for politicians to become statesmen and resolve matters.
In several places, this is happening right now, and yielding peace. In Columbia, after half a century of fighting, the left-wing FARC are at last being brought in from the jungle. In southern Turkey, the Kurds are lowering their weapons, after overtures from Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In Myanmar, the army last month agreed a preliminary ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army. And in Nigeria, the president has sought a dialogue with the odious Boko Haram.
This is no trend. It is centuries-old statecraft, a dirty pragmatism played out behind closed doors when warring parties reach a stalemate or are otherwise incentivised to end their conflict. They thrash out a future both can live with. They still hate each other, and nobody ever gets everything they want, but there is enough in it for all sides to shake hands. If the world didn’t work like this, none of us would ever have known peace.
So why can’t Israel bite the bullet and talk to Hamas?
If the United States can talk to Mullah Omar (the world’s most wanted man after bin Laden’s death), and Mr Jonathan of Nigeria can reach out to those responsible for 10,000 deaths (with the aim of stopping more), why can’t Bibi unclench his fist, engage Ismail Haniyah and thrash out a future without rockets and airstrikes?
Excuses for not doing so are running out and wearing thin.
As we’ve just seen, the old refrain of ‘not negotiating with terrorists’ looks a little shaky these days, while the ‘fundamental incompatibility’ argument – that Hamas seeks the return of land both it and Israel sees as rightfully theirs – is nothing new to history. A staggering 136 of the world’s 193 countries are at present in some form of territorial dispute, and the vast majority of them are willing to negotiate. You need only look across the Irish Sea for a bad example of a lost cause.
Elsewhere too, the logic for non-engagement is crumbling. The idea of ‘intransigence’ – that Hamas cannot be reasoned with – lost credibility when negotiators agreed the prisoner swap of 2011 and the ceasefire of 2012, while the ‘no partner for peace’ argument is flaky at best, since Hamas would quickly overrun Fatah on the West Bank were it not for ‘external props’ supporting Abbas. It is crystal clear, in other words, which group Israel should negotiate with.
Yet others say there is ‘no popular will’ for Israel to talk to Hamas, as if it were only natural to want to compromise with your sworn enemy. But in the UK as elsewhere, polls have shown the opposite, with an admittedly small majority urging dialogue.
Finally, there is the fall-back argument of ‘bad timing,’ but today, this could not be further from the truth. Hamas is on its knees. It thought it had new friends in Egypt and Turkey, until the latter re-established links with Israel and the former flooded its tunnels with sewage. Israel holds almost every military and economic card, and the Jewish state is just as incentivised to cut a deal. The peace dividend promises inward investment, land development and regional trading ties, while an agreement with Hamas would add to the woes of a waning Iran. On top of this (and for those worried about a burgeoning boycott movement) good PR cannot come soon enough.
How far do you go? In Somalia, for example, should the government talk to Al-Shabbab? Should the Yemeni authorities sit down with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula? Should an ailing Algerian president accommodate Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb?
Clearly, there are times when you don’t talk to terrorists – you crush them using every means at your disposal. But that is not an option Israel could ever consider using against the elected rulers of 1.7 million people, and Israelis themselves say that the status quo in Gaza is at best a temporary solution.
So, is it time to negotiate with Hamas?
The words stick in my throat, but there is logic is there and the timing is right. Gaza cannot remain blockaded forever, fed intravenously through a wall of security, and the world is fast running out of patience. Israel’s military advantage is at a maximum, as are the economic incentives for Gaza’s rulers to strike a deal.
So yes: if American generals can sit down with Afghan mullahs sworn to kill them, perhaps it is time Bibi gave it some serious thought.