Digesting Hamas III -
The Recognition Stumbling Block
By Terrell E. Arnold
"Hamas has arrived at the doors of power through legitimate elections," said Russian President Putin last Thursday during a joint press conference with the Prime Minister of Spain. He said that Russia does not consider Hamas a terrorist organization. Moreover, he declared that Russia would invite Hamas representatives to come to Moscow for talks in the future. That presumably would be under Russia's role in the Quartet with the United States, the UN, and the European Community that is responsible for navigating the Road Map to Middle East peace. On Friday France indicated that it supported the Putin plan to invite Hamas to Moscow.
Israeli officials uniformly have loudly protested the Putin invitation, asserting that it threatens peace prospects. Israelis have been trying to have all governments shun Hamas because its charter calls for destruction of Israel. Calling the Putin invitation a "slap in the face" to Israel and to western countries, Israelis said it was Russia's responsibility to shun Hamas.
However, according to the New York Times, a French Foreign Ministry spokesman stated that "We share with Russia the goal of leading Hamas toward positions that permit reaching the objective of two states living in peace and security."
Putin's statements indicated plainly that Russia has moved to the next square concerning Palestinian politics and Middle East peace. Putin appeared unmoved by Israeli protests, or by the probable--behind the scenes--efforts others have been made to make him change his mind.
Out of obeisance to Israel, the West struggles pretty uniformly to figure out what to do about the Hamas political victory in Palestine. Putin has seen both the reality and the opportunity. He suddenly is in at least a metaphorical class--one he may not even recall--with Harry Truman, who was the first to recognize the fledgling self-declared state of Israel in 1948. France, less closely tied to US positions than most Europeans, basically followed suit by supporting the Russian position.
Hamas, ready or not, entered the forever dicey realm of great power competition for present and future influence, if not pre-eminence in the Middle East. However it plays out, the pending visit to Moscow is a very important moment for Hamas.
It will be, most likely, the first Hamas toe in the tricky waters of Middle East peace negotiations. When they are in Russia, as Putin statements already have indicated, the Hamas representatives will be pressed on the need to recognize Israel.
Recognition sounds like a straightforward gesture that contains no complications. Typically, it is a mutual gesture between two states of equal legal standing whereby each state recognizes and respects the people, laws, territory and sovereignty of the other. In this case, however, the West, the UN and Israel are seeking a unilateral act by Hamas on behalf of Palestine, i.e., recognizing Israel's right to exist, for which the Palestinian people get nothing in return, because no Israeli obligations are either stated or implied.
In fact, getting Israel to define itself, specify its intentions, and make unequivocal commitments to the peace process, to the Palestinians, or to the Quartet have been the hardest and most enduring blocks to successful peace negotiations. Recognizing Israel, warts and all, therefore, would not be a step forward, either for Hamas or for the Palestinian people.
In short, recognition has to be a product of common understandings reached on what happens next. And those understandings have to be backed with concrete commitments on both sides. Otherwise, the very real prospect is that recognizing Israel, "where is, as is", will be the start of further endless talks that lead nowhere, while the area of a future Palestinian state shrinks and disintegrates under Israeli incursions. Hamas as a political entity will not survive that process, and neither will Palestine.
In response to a request to recognize Israel, even the most forthcoming Hamas team needs a lot of answers:
Which Israel: The one that is now slowly devouring the West Bank and reducing the area of any Palestinian state?
Which Israel: The one that is turning what is left of a Palestinian state into disjointed Bantustans surrounded by a prison wall?
Which Israel: The one that increasingly blocks any Palestinian access to the sacred city of Jerusalem?
Which Israel: The one that has confiscated hundreds of Palestinian farms and villages and continues to confiscate Palestinian lands without compensation?
Which Israel: The one that hogs more and more of Palestine's scarce water?
Which Israel: The one that even now may be planning to assassinate more members of Hamas?
Which Israel: The one that always demands present and real Palestinian concessions for future and undefined Israeli ones?
Which Israel: The one that now occupies the whole of Palestine and day by day makes life miserable for the Palestinian people?
OR: An Israel that unequivocally will pull back to the 1967 truce line to make way for a Palestinian state?
Every one of these Israels, except the last, is simply incompatible with any generally recognized concept of recognition between states. The refusal of Hamas leaders to heed the drumbeat of international opinion would surely be unpopular in the West and in Israel. But at this point Hamas recognition of Israel without any commitments on the part of Israel and/or its international supporters would probably confirm the end of the line for any Palestinian state. Some Israelis and supporters probably understand this.
It would be only a matter of time before Hamas would turn into the eunuch that Fatah became, or would revert in frustration to insurgency. Hamas knows that recognition without conditions is giving away half of pre World War II Palestine without a struggle or compensation. That would define the start of future bargaining in the most awkward manner: Basically "as is, where is", recognition says for the Israelis: What is mine is mine. Now let us talk about how much of yours we're willing to let you keep.
A less definitive Hamas response appears both possible and constructive: Hamas simply needs to be noncommittal about such issues as the size and shape of Israel; it will refrain from making any statements that appear to take the present situation as a given. Should there be further cracks in the common front of the international community Hamas might simply say it is prepared to accept Israel as the partner to a negotiative process designed to reach a two state solution. And finally, Hamas would make clear that recognition per se would have to await the results of those negotiations.
This is a tough landscape for Hamas because its political personality is not yet fully developed. The present membership of the Hamas leadership group includes not only those who have chosen the active political path, but also varying orders of hardliners who see negotiation as a lost cause and continued armed struggle as a necessity. Membership also includes a number of fairly senior people who have been living outside Palestine, surviving mostly on the good will of surrounding families and governments, and gathering funds, weapons, et cetera to support the cause.
Getting the Hamas political act together could involve a virtual repeat of the Fatah experience. Hamas needs both time and a rationale for getting this disparate membership behind a political agenda. That may require Hamas leadership to ease out some of the hardliners.
That task would go a lot more smoothly if outsiders recognized the complexity of the Hamas position and gave them the needed room. It will go badly for everyone, especially Israel and the Palestinian people, if outsiders and Israel do not recognize and accept this need and cooperate. People simply have to recognize that Hamas won a fair and free election, and the time for serious negotiation of the real issues is now close at hand.
The writer is the author of the recently published work, _A World Less Safe_, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist on He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State whose immediate pre-retirement positions were as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counterterrorism, and as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College. He will welcome comment at



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