With the deletion of the world’s most wanted terrorist, the deleter in chief should invest his newfound diplomatic and political capital in the Levantine Middle East, where the whirlwind of political unrest is sowing opportunities for a peace deal.
This week, Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas reconciled after four years of estrangement. As part of a unity government, Hamas will honor the Palestinian Authority’s peace agreements with Israel and Fatah officials will lead the new government in negotiations with the Jewish state for an independent Palestine. This is a position Hamas would never have assumed two decades ago, when Yasser Arafat negotiated an historic peace deal with Israel, nor is it the first time it has made such a concession. [See photos of reactions to Osama bin Laden's death.]
In February 2007, Fatah and Hamas agreed to govern in tandem as a way to staunch intramural violence that was threatening to erupt into civil war. The deal was brokered in Mecca by Saudi King Abdullah, who persuaded Hamas to respect existing accords with Israel and to allow Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate with its leaders. When the so-called Mecca Accord was announced, it was widely interpreted as de facto recognition by Hamas of a country it once referred to only as “the Zionist entity.” Not only did Washington ignore the agreement, however, it secretly supplied arms to Fatah militias in Gaza, hoping they would dispatch Hamas once and for all. The Mecca agreement quickly broke down and by late spring, after a short but bloody war, the Palestinian territories were split between a Hamas-controlled Gaza and a Fatah-administered West Bank.
Four years later, Israel once again has a unified partner with which to deal. Rather than at least test Hamas’ intentions, it has refused to recognize any Palestinian government in which the militant group is a part. What was once said about Arafat--that he never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity--may now be said about the Israelis. The Arab world is in play. Far from an impediment to peace, the uncertainty convulsing the region augers well for a deal.
Hamas may already be planning for a world without one of its key benefactors, the beleaguered regime in Syria. According to the New York Times, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad is demanding Hamas’ public support for his bloody crackdown on the popular uprising against his rule. Hamas has so far refused, and tensions between the two sides is fueling rumors that the group may relocate its headquarters from Damascus to Qatar. Hamas is also under pressure in Gaza, both externally from the Israelis, who control much of what goes in and out of the sea-side enclave, and internally from radical indigenous groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad and armed secular clans, as well as Salafi-Jihadi outsiders with vague ties to Al Qaeda. As reported by Al Majalla, a London-based online magazine, Hamas has done little to prohibit these groups from lobbing rockets into southern Israel because it has no incentive to do so.
After four years in power, Hamas is no longer the spoiler it was in the early 1990s when it virulently opposed Arafat’s peace overtures to Israel. In 2009, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal told the Times in a landmark, five-hour interview that the group was prepared to settle for a Palestinian state contoured roughly along the borders that prevailed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. He declared Hamas’ charter, which calls for the dissolution of the Jewish state, to be obsolete. Speaking this week from Cairo, where the reconciliation government was announced, he challenged Israel to resume negotiations with Abbas.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his supporters say they will never negotiate with a man like Meshaal, who has no small amount of Jewish blood on his hands. That would be a defensible position were it not for the fact that political violence is as liquid a currency in the modern Middle East as the shekel and the dinar. For years now, Hamas has been speaking the language of a militant group that has embraced terrorism as a means to the end of an independent state--a strategy employed with great success in the 1940s by militant Zionist groups, which engaged in assassination and terrorist bombings in their campaign to oust British forces from Palestine.
President Barack Obama now has the leverage he needs to impose the framework of a Levantine peace deal, and it should include recognition of Hamas as a legitimate constituency within the Palestinian electorate. He can do this covertly, through neutral third parties, or as part of a very public multilateral round that involves countries like Egypt and Turkey. Either way, it should be done for the most simple and profound of reasons: it is in America’s interests.