Greenstock, Hamas and why it’s good to talk

January 24, 2009 at 7:18 pm | Posted in International | 2 Comments

Last week, as the bombs were still falling on Gaza, former UN Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock argued that any negotiations towards a peace settlement must include Hamas. Naturally, it wasn’t long before the usual suspects clattered their keyboards in disgust: David Toube accused Greenstock of being an ‘Ambassador‘ for Hamas and believing the group to be ‘fluffy’ and harmless, whilst Melanie Phillips accused him of being a propagandist for a group hell-bent on Jihad.

It’s certainly true that Greenstock’s argument was poorly-made; it was one-sided, didn’t touch upon the group’s calculated doublespeak or its crimes both inside and outside of Gaza, and would’ve done little to change the minds of those already entrenched in their opposition to negotiations.

But I don’t think it was the weaknesses in Greenstock’s rhetoric, nor his inacuracies & omissions, which most troubled Toube or Phillips. No, I think what was implicit in both writers’ denunciations was an attempt to repudiate Greenstock’s core argument without substantively addressing it.

The genius of the ‘fluffy Hamas’ line is the inference that Greenstock – and others like him – underestimates Hamas’ threat, understates its death-wish ideology and ignores its vow to eliminate Israel. Because he’s supposedly so cavalier in his assessment of Israel’s security, his views on how to secure peace are therefore irrelevant.

But whilst this is a brilliant attempt to marginalise the voices for dialogue, it obscures a very inconvenient reality: those voices are far from marginal.

For one, that number has included a large majority of Israelis. Back in February of last year, Haaretz found – even as rockets rained down on Sderot – that 63% of Israelis favoured direct talks with Hamas towards securing a cease-fire and the release of Gilad Shalit. Interestingly, polls have also shows that most Palestinians believe Hamas should recognise Israel’s right to exist – a sign, perhaps, that both parties are more extreme than their publics.

What’s more, some of the most credible advocates for dialogue with Hamas are those who’re intimately acquainted with Israel’s security concerns. One of them is Ephraim Halevy, former chief of Mossad, who advocates continuous and “indirect proximity talks” using third parties. Another is David Kimche, former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry, who has insisted that Israel has ‘no choice but to talk‘ to its enemies. Other advocates include former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, Seymour D. Reich of the Israel Policy Forum and the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute.

In each of these cases, the argument for negotiating with Hamas is not because they believe them to be nice or ‘fluffy’, but because the strategy of non-negotiation failed and it’s in the interests of Israel’s security to pursue a different course.

Whatever flaws there were to Greenstock’s argument, his key point is not only shared by many others who care deeply about Israel’s future, but is slowly becoming the foreign policy consensus, with the Obama administration likely to engage in indirect communication with Hamas in the future. We should all hope that this change in strategy will bring benefits to both sides and put an end to the era when a man’s integrity can be questioned just for encouraging two warring parties to talk.


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  1. That is not what I argued at all. My concerns are identical to yours. Arguing for negotiation with Hamas is fine – we did it with the IRA after it indicated that it was prepared to end the armed struggle. The question is, however, whether Hamas is prepared to take the same historic step.

    In order to evaluate whether that is likely to happen, it is necessary to consider what the group believes; or whether there are any factions within the group which are more interested in building a state than in destroying Israel.

    You can do that frankly: or alternatively, you can write an article that pretends that there is no real problem.

    Greenstock took the latter path.

  2. David,

    If I’ve misread (and therefore misrepresented) your position, then I apologise for the mistake – there was certainly no malice intended. I’ve long been concerned with what I feel is a witch hunt against those who criticise some of Israel’s military actions and favour some kind of negotiation with Hamas. Just a few days into this latest escalation, you could find Marty Peretz accusing the likes of Ezra Klein & Matt Yglesias of hating their ancestry just for writing some (pretty moderate) posts critical of the bombings, and the charge which is often implied by the likes of Peretz, Rubin, Kirchick, Philips etc is that people who do engage in such criticism are soft, blase or just plain ignorant about Israel’s security. As well as being thoroughly divisive and damaging for debate, it’s just plain wrong. Just speaking for myself: I’ve been Israel. It’s beautiful. I’d like to go back one day. And the only way I can do that is if it still exists as a home for both Jews and Arabs.

    Again, if I wrongly identified you as part of this clan, then you have my apologies. Whilst I’m probably more critical than you or your fellow HP contibutors of Israel’s actions, I’m certainly in agreement with you more often than the SWP/Respect brigade. Just as I was dismayed that the some of the loudest opponents of the war on Iraq were disreputable, anti-American barmpots (a Barnsleyism, sorry), it makes me really angry that criticism of Israel’s actions so often comes in the form of the far left’s histrionics and dubious affiliations. They do their cause no favours and constantly drown out the rest of us.

    As for my position on negotiations; I don’t think Hamas should be part of any kind of Oslo or Camp David style talks unless it meets the Quartet’s conditions, but consider mid-level talks through trusted intermediaries as essential for trying to open the crossings, stop the rockets and free Shalit.

    Thanks for stopping by.

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