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Facing Hamas and Hezbollah

This article can be found on the web at
*http://www.thenation.com/doc/20071119/cobban*

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   Facing Hamas and Hezbollah

by HELENA COBBAN

[from the November 19, 2007 issue]

One sunny morning in September 1993 I sat on the White House lawn,
watching bemused as American political notables lined up for a "grip and
grin" photo with Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. For twenty-five years
previously--and until just days before that morning's signing of the
Oslo Accord--Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization had been judged
by the US government to be a "foreign terrorist organization." On
Capitol Hill and in most of the mainstream media, the excoriation of
Arafat and the PLO had been long-lasting and virulent. But now, here
were scores of Congressional leaders and media bigwigs lining up to be
part of the new pro-Oslo zeitgeist.


What made the difference was that the Israeli government had shifted its
stance. When that shift was made public, virtually the entire US
political class turned on a dime. Today two very significant forces in
the Middle East--Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon--are in
nearly the same position the PLO was locked into before the early 1990s.
Indeed, this time the United States is more directly participating in
hostile actions against the current "untouchables" than it ever was
against the pre-Oslo PLO. After Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary
elections in January 2006, the Bush Administration orchestrated a harsh
boycott of the new Hamas-led government, which left Washington's
"pro-democracy" stance in the Middle East in tatters. Then in summer
2006, when Israeli airplanes and artillery were trying to wipe
Hezbollah--and much of Lebanon's national infrastructure--off the map,
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice worked overtime to prevent the
Security Council from calling a cease-fire.

Our country's diplomacy has been held hostage to Israel's preference to
fight rather than engage with these two significant movements. But the
United States has its own extremely pressing interests in the Middle
East. Key among these are the need to find a way to withdraw from Iraq
and radically de-escalate tensions with Iran in order to minimize US
losses and lethal disorder in the region. There are many close links
between the Persian Gulf and the Arab-Israeli theater. As the
Baker-Hamilton report of last year rightly noted, if Washington wants to
avoid catastrophe in Iraq, it must be prepared to undertake a vigorous
and effective push for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Recently, the Bush
Administration has attempted to look as if it is doing something on this
issue. Bush and Rice are trying to organize a November summit in
Annapolis to be attended by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud
Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The Administration is also
hoping for high-level representation from the Arab states, especially
Saudi Arabia. But Washington has deliberately excluded Hamas. Indeed,
the current moves are intended to weaken Hamas, which is often portrayed
as merely a tool of an irredeemably hostile Iran.

Hamas and Hezbollah have both been on the State Department's list of
terrorist organizations for many years. After 9/11, that designation
became even more constricting as the Administration threw huge new
resources into attacking the financing and propaganda/information
mechanisms of a range of Islamist groups it had designated as targets in
the "war on terror." The launching of this new concept completely
blurred the distinction between those groups that, like Al Qaeda, aptly
fit the description of "rootless cosmopolitans" and those that, like
Hamas and Hezbollah, are deeply rooted within stable national
communities to which they provide real services and to which they hold
themselves accountable.

During the wave of decolonizations that occurred in the three decades
after 1945, nearly all the decolonizing governments ended up negotiating
the transition with leaders of movements that for years had been
excluded from political participation (and usually also ruthlessly
repressed and attacked) on the grounds that they were "terrorists." In
the more recent past, the successful peace processes in South Africa and
Northern Ireland started in earnest only when the ruling governments
agreed to talk with opposition groups previously designated as
terrorists. In both cases, the only criteria for inclusion were that
participants agree to a cease-fire and participate in elections. The
movements concerned--the African National Congress (ANC) and its allies
in South Africa, and Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army in Northern
Ireland--were notably not required, as a prerequisite for the inclusion
of the political wing in negotiations, either to disarm or to change
their founding platforms in any way. South Africa's Pan Africanist
Congress (PAC) took part in the talks without being required to change
their simple platform of "One [white] settler, one bullet."

In Palestine, Hamas participated peacefully, in good faith and with
notable success, in the 2006 elections. From early 2005 onward it had,
along with the other big Palestinian organization, Fatah, adhered to a
unilateral cessation of attacks against Israel--which was not, alas,
reciprocated by Israel. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has participated
peacefully and skillfully in every national election since 1992, most
recently winning fourteen seats out of 128 in summer 2005. (The party's
support in the country is greater than those numbers suggest. The
numbers of seats available to the Lebanese Shiites who form its main
base is artificially small.) Hezbollah members have been ministers in
Lebanese governments. Regarding its readiness and ability to observe a
cease-fire, more than fifteen years have passed since Hezbollah used its
weapons against any other authentically Lebanese movement. In addition,
from 1996 to July 2006 it maintained its side of cease-fires negotiated
indirectly with Israel.

Hezbollah contravened the cease-fire regime by infiltrating Israel and
capturing two Israeli soldiers in the summer of 2006 (Israel had also
contravened it, numerous times). In response, Israel launched a massive
retaliation, attacking not only Hezbollah-related targets but major
elements of the country's civilian infrastructure. At the time, as in
the similar assault Israel undertook in 1996, Israeli leaders said
publicly that their goal was to turn the people and government of
Lebanon against Hezbollah. As in 1996, the attempt backfired, and Israel
ended up having to negotiate an end to hostilities on terms that fell
far short of its original goals. Indeed, Hezbollah possibly emerged from
the war stronger than it had been before the hostilities. The
organization and its charismatic leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, gained
prestige all over the Arab world, including among many Sunni Arabs. The
August 2006 cease-fire has remained remarkably durable ever since.

At this point, both Hamas and Hezbollah have shown by their actions that
(1) they are capable of winning and holding the allegiance of a
substantial portion of their national communities, as demonstrated in
free and fair elections; and (2) they are willing to enter into
cease-fires with Israel and are capable of exerting the internal
discipline required to abide by them. If the Middle East were South
Africa or Northern Ireland, we would conclude that they have more than
met the conditions for inclusion in peace talks. But when Israel is
involved, the US political class continues to make the extraordinary and
unrealistic demands that before these organizations can be included in
any political process they must completely disarm, both physically and
ideologically--just like the PLO before them. (No parallel demand is
placed on Israel.) Meanwhile, pending these organizations' complete
compliance with the demands, nearly all US politicians hew to the
position that it is quite all right to join with Israel in inflicting
harsh, in many cases lethal, collective punishment on the 1.5 million
Palestinians of the Gaza Strip, and in using covert intervention in
Lebanon to whittle away at Hezbollah's power there.

What actions have either of these organizations ever taken against the
United States and its interests? In the case of Hamas, none. Yes, it is
true that US citizens visiting or living in Israel were killed or maimed
during the suicide-bombing campaigns Hamas launched against Israel in
the 1990s. But those Americans were not targeted because of their US
citizenship, any more than Palestinian-Americans harmed by Israel's
actions in the West Bank or Gaza were targeted because of their US
citizenship.

At the rhetorical level, meanwhile, Hamas's leaders--like their
confreres, the leaders of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood--are at pains to
point out that they have no grievance against the American people. They
firmly dissociated themselves from the 9/11 attacks--both at the time
and since. But the Hamas leaders do ask why so many US politicians of
both parties continue to be so one-sided in their support of Israel and
so strongly biased against the Palestinians. One Hamas parliamentarian I
interviewed in Ramallah last year argued that Americans should be glad
to deal with Hamas, because "we are the moderates in the Islamist
movement."

Hezbollah's case is a little more complex. The party was created in 1985
through the amalgamation of a number of armed resistance networks that
grew up in opposition to the Israeli occupation of their country. (If
there had been no 1982 Israeli invasion, there would be no Hezbollah
today.) Before 1985 some of the pre-Hezbollah networks included people
who, judging that the United States had supported Israel's invasions of
Lebanon in 1978 and 1982 and Israel's proxy forces within Lebanon--and
determined to end what they considered a hostile US military presence in
their country--chose to punish the United States. In 1983-84 those
networks used car and truck bombs in lethal attacks against the US
Embassy (twice), against the barracks housing US Marines serving in a
US-led peacekeeping force and against other US targets in Lebanon. When
Hezbollah was formed, it focused its armed operations much more tightly
on opposing Israeli occupation forces rather than against US or other
Western targets there. At the rhetorical level, Hezbollah to this day
holds to a clearly recognizable anti-imperialist position that sees the
United States as "the heir to the Old Imperialism" and sees Israel as
part of what it considers a US imperial plan in the Middle East. But it
has not done anything to operationalize that analysis by attacking US
targets either inside or outside Lebanon. There have been some
allegations that Hezbollah has sent military advisers to train anti-US
militias in Iraq, but these reports have never been confirmed (and given
that Hezbollah's closest links in Iraq are with organizations affiliated
with the government installed by the United States, they have a general
implausibility). Like the leaders of Hamas, the leaders of Hezbollah
also sharply dissociated themselves from the 9/11 attacks.

No aspect of Hamas's or Hezbollah's current policies should prevent
Washington from dealing with either organization. Remember that when
South Africa's apartheid government agreed to talk with the ANC, the PAC
and other armed anti-apartheid groups, these groups were still--up to
the time the negotiation-related cease-fire went into effect--actively
targeting government installations and, in the case of the PAC, white
citizens throughout the country. The same was true in the Northern
Ireland talks and in all the negotiations over preceding decades that
led to the freeing of scores of Third World countries from the shackles
of colonialism. Contrary to what many American commentators seem to
believe, sitting down to negotiate with another party does not indicate
agreement with it but merely a pragmatic recognition that it is a force
that must be engaged in the search for a solution. It should be noted
that in Iraq the United States has now started to deal directly with
tribal and political groups that were until recently involved in the
guerrilla resistance against the US occupation.

American negotiators should seek forums within which they can engage
representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah--along with other relevant
parties such as Syria--so that all these players can energetically probe
exactly how to resolve the remaining strands of the Arab-Israeli
conflict in a way that is fair to everyone and gives all sides a path to
a peaceful future. This is not a pipe dream. As long as Washington
refuses to do this, the search for peace in the Middle East will be
fruitless, because no sustainable peace can be built in defiance of the
millions of Palestinians and Lebanese who support these two movements.

The strong bias that Washington has shown toward Israel for some four
decades has served our country poorly. It continues to weaken US
interests in the Middle East and far, far beyond. There are no signs
that the Bush Administration's current round of coercive
Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy will lead to an agreement more sturdy or
sustainable than previous partial and unsuccessful agreements. If the
United States is incapable of maintaining a fair-minded position in
Israeli-Arab diplomacy, it should give up its dominant role. The United
Nations could then take over, instead of acting as a junior partner in a
US-led "Quartet" of powers, as at present. But whoever leads the
peace-brokering will have to realize there can be no peace in the Middle
East without somehow including Hezbollah and Hamas in the process.
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