As Mideast Tensions Rise, Obama Urged to Be More Flexible About Hamas

By Patrick Goodenough | December 22, 2008 | 5:22 AM EST

Palestinian terrorists on the outskirts of Gaza City prepare to fire rockets into Israel on Saturday, Dec. 20, 2008. (AP Photo)

( – The end of a truce between Israel and the Hamas terrorist group ruling Gaza is boosting tensions in the Gaza-Israel region. On Sunday, the two politicians vying to become Israel’s next prime minister early next year vowed to topple the Islamists.
The policy pledges by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of the Kadima party and Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister, come at a time when Mideast experts are recommending that the incoming Obama administration adopt a more flexible line on Hamas.
A number of analysts predict that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will present a key early foreign policy challenge to President-elect Obama and his Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton.
A six-month ceasefire, upheld erratically until it began to break down in early November, ended on Friday. On Sunday, about 15 rockets were fired from Gaza, one of which hit a home in nearby Sderot. The Israeli Air Force fired a missile at a suspected rocket-launching site. No casualties were reported.
With some ministers urging tougher action in response to escalating attacks, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert cautioned during a cabinet meeting Sunday against “aggressive and daring statements.”
“A responsible government is neither eager for battle, nor does it shy away from it,” he said. “Israel will know when to respond correctly and with the necessary responsibility.”
Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet intelligence agency, briefed ministers on Hamas’ rocket capabilities, saying they could now reach the outskirts of Beer Sheva, about 25 miles from the Gaza border. Beer Sheva, a city of 186,000 people, is Israel’s seventh most populous center.
The foreign ministry said Sunday evening that Livni and Israeli ambassadors would launch a diplomatic offensive to seek support for any military action that may be taken in Gaza.
After the earlier cabinet meeting, Livni, who is campaigning ahead of elections scheduled for February 10, said that as prime minister she would aim to use military, economic and diplomatic means to “topple the Hamas regime.”

Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu inspects the damage of a house in Sderot hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip on Sunday, Dec. 21, 2008. (AP Photo)

Netanyahu, her main rival who leads in opinion polls, accused the Kadima-led government of being “passive” and also called for the overthrow of Hamas in Gaza. He made the comments during a visit to Sderot, where he viewed the latest rocket damage.
Hamas leaders reacted to the Israeli remarks defiantly. Israel has been talking about invading for three years, a Hamas leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, told an Arabic radio station. If it wanted to invade Gaza, it should simply go ahead and do so.
Obama urged to be ‘more pragmatic’ about Hamas
Israel under then-Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew troops from Gaza and evacuated Israeli communities there in mid-2005. Sharon and Netanyahu had a serious fallout over the policy, and Sharon later that year left the Likud to form Kadima. He was then incapacitated by a stroke and replaced by Olmert.
Three weeks later, Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections, precipitating a crisis of legitimacy since the U.S. and its allies refused to recognize the Islamist organization until it recognized Israel, renounced violence, and adhered to agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (P.A.)
Those three criteria are endorsed by the so-called Mideast “Quartet,” comprising the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
Hamas and Fatah – P.A. chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ faction – formed a national unity government in March 2007, but the U.S. and Israel would not deal with Hamas members of that government, including Ismail Haniyah, who was appointed to the post of prime minister.
The unity government was short-lived, and a violent power struggle led three months later to a Hamas takeover of Gaza, leading effectively to two rival Palestinian self-rule areas – Gaza under Haniyah and Hamas, and the West Bank under Abbas and the Fatah-dominated P.A.
Largely internationally isolated, Hamas draws its external support from Syria and Iran. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, sympathetic to Fatah, are trying to encourage further unity talks.
Some policy analysts are advising the international community to take a more flexible approach towards Hamas in the coming months, arguing that reconciliation between the Palestinian factions is crucial if a peace agreement with Israel is to be negotiated.
In a new report, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) says the U.S. and European Union should signal that in the event of a new Fatah-Hamas unity government, they would not automatically reject and torpedo it.
They should also make it clear that they would judge such a unity government “not by its composition but by its conduct,” and that the U.S., without having to engage directly with Hamas, “would assess the Islamist movement on a more pragmatic basis.”
The ICG also says that if Obama follows up his campaign pledges to engage with the governments of countries like Iran and Syria, that may have the effect of helping to bring about a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation.
Another recent report, by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and Brookings Institution, went further, saying that the incoming Obama administration should stop insisting that Hamas meet the Quartet criteria, as long as it respects a ceasefire and accepts a 2002 Arab peace proposal.
(The 22-member Arab League in that Saudi-initiated proposal offered to normalize relations with Israel on condition that Israel withdraws to borders it held before it captured the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 and finds a just solution to the Palestinian refugee issue.)
The recommended new U.S. strategy would diminish Hamas’ incentive to undermine negotiations with Israel and force Hamas either to accept a peace agreement or lose the backing of the Palestinian public, argued Steven Cook and Shibley Telhami in the CFR-Brookings report.
Another section of the CFR-Brookings report, by Richard Haass and Martin Indyk, urged Obama to be more aggressive than his predecessor in encouraging support for the 2002 Arab plan and in pressing Israel to follow through in its commitments in previous agreements with the P.A.
It said that because Hamas controls Gaza and enjoys “support among at least one-third of Palestinians,” any peace process that excludes it could fail.
The Obama administration should therefore have a more relaxed policy on the Islamist organization.
“If the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas continues to hold and a Hamas-P.A. reconciliation emerges, the Obama administration should deal with the joint Palestinian leadership and authorize low-level contact between US officials and Hamas in Gaza,” wrote Haass and Indyk.
Haass is president of the CFR. Indyk, director of Brookings’ Saban Center for Middle East Policy, is a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, considered to be close in thinking to Obama’s secretary of state pick.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow