You know the old economist joke:
A physicist, a chemist and an economist are stranded on an island, with nothing to eat. A can of soup washes ashore. The physicist solution: “Let’s smash the can open with a rock.” The chemist solution: “Let’s build a fire and heat the can first.” The economist solution: “First, assume a can-opener….”
In graduate school we read a book called Palestinian Politics After the Oslo Accords, and while it offered some good analysis, we mostly made fun of it because somehow, amazingly, it only mentioned Hamas on two of its 254 pages. An entire book about modern Palestinian politics only mentioned Hamas twice, both of them throwaway references! The consensus of the class was that it’s pretty easy to talk about the Palestinian national movement and the way forward in the peace process if you elide a major impediment to both. First, assume no Hamas!
I felt the same way reading John Judis’s much-praised essay in the New Republic in support of the Palestinians’ bid for statehood at the UN. Judis accuses the U.S. of severe myopia in promising to veto the bid in the Security Council. He lays much blame for the failed peace process on the Netanyahu government, which he says essentially scrapped the entire negotiation framework built by previous administrations, instead deciding to go on a “construction binge” in the occupied territories in order to appease right-wing domestic constituencies. Judis suggests that the process by which the state of Israel gained UN recognition in 1948—with strong U.S. support—is eerily similar to the current Palestinian appeal. He argues that our opposition to the latter is not only hypocritical and craven, but antithetical to our interests in the region.
Andrew Sullivan nods approvingly at Judis’s essay, calling it “an elegant, factual, calm dismemberment of where the Obama administration has ended up on Israel-Palestine.” Sullivan blames the U.S. fumbling of this whole UN episode on the Obama admininstration’s capitulation to what he calls the “Greater Israel Lobby,” as well as the president’s inability or unwillingness to overcome “Netanyahu’s adamant resistance to any serious attempt at a two-state solution.”
Both men seem to be in agreement that if not for Obama’s lack of vision, pro-Israel lobby fundamentalism, and Netanyahu’s cynicism and bad faith, we’d be in much better shape. I agree with a lot of both mens’ analysis. But do you notice anything missing from them? There is hardly a mention of Hamas! And no mention of the fact that the Palestinian leadership is currently cleaved geographically, politically, and militarily. “Palestine” is now much more accurately described as the two competing statelets of Hamasistan and Fatahistan. Remarkably, this fact doesn’t merit mention in either Judis’s or Sullivan’s essay.
Judis’s 2200-word piece mentions the word Hamas exactly twice. The first is just to point out Hamas’s “important role” in the Second Intifada (along with “other radical Islamist groups”). The second Hamas mention is this:
By seeking to win statehood through UN recognition and assistance, the Palestinian leadership is visibly underscoring its commitment to a two-state solution; by doing that, and by rejecting a strategy based on terror and violence for one based on negotiation and multilateral assistance from the United Nations (which, again, was created to resolve exactly the kind of conflict that is occurring between the Israelis and the Palestinians), it is potentially marginalizing Hamas.
But is “seeking to win statehood” through the UN really a good mechanism for Hamas-marginalization? What happens the day after statehood when all of the core issues remain as unresolved and intractable as ever? What if the Abbas/Fayyad strategy of “negotiation and multilateral assistance” is shown to have gotten us no closer to the end of occupation or settlements or to real autonomy for the Palestinian people? Might that discredit the conciliatory approach and end up embolding Hamas even more? Judis doesn’t say.
Judis does make other oddly oblique references to Hamas. For instance, he scoffs at those who argue against the UN bid just because “some Palestinians still don’t recognize the right of Israel to exist.” I agree in principle, but again, who are those “some Palestinians?” A couple of bad eggs? Well no, they are the political and terrorist organization that won a sweeping legislative victory in 2006, whose official charter calls for the destruction of Israel, who currently governs nearly half of the Palestinian people after it took over the Gaza Strip by force in 2007, who continues cross border rocket attacks against Israeli civilians, and who is against the UN statehood bid that Judis wants the U.S. to support! Why not mention any of this?
Sullivan’s impassioned defense of Judis’s argument is even worse. He doesn’t mention Hamas at all, not once, let alone any hint of the current divisions in Palestinian society which make any talk of a unified cohesive “Palestine” ridiculous.
Look, I believe in the right of self-determination for the Palestinian people. I think continued occupation of Palestinian land is as unjust as it is unwise. I think Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank is illegal and immoral. I think anyone who believes they have a biblical deed to land comprising “greater Israel” is bonkers.
And I do agree with Judis and others, that the U.S. and particularly Israel really suffered a failure of imagination regarding this whole UN episode. The main argument here is that international recognition of a Palestinian state with defined or sort-of-defined borders is also a de facto recognition of a right of Israel to exist. There are a lot of creative scenarios that potentially follow from this, none of which Israel or the U.S. seem to have pursued.
But in apportioning blame for the ongoing failure to end the most intractable conflict in modern history, I am far more ecumenical than Judis and Sullivan. I prefer the view of Aaron David Miller, who has a more structural take on the problem:
There is no conflict-ending agreement now available to Israelis and Palestinians. The gaps are just too big, the suspicions too deep, and the regional environment too uncertain; and the capacity of an American (or any other mediator) to serve as an effective broker is just too implausible.
And Miller rejects the idea that the path not taken by the Obama administration would have yielded better results.
Did the president have an alternative? Could he have done things differently these many months? I have close friends, former colleagues whom I respect and admire greatly, who argue yes….
I don’t agree with any of this, of course. Neither Abbas nor Netanyahu would be willing to pay the necessary price required for a deal. But who really knows in the wonderful world of counterfactuals?
This is a rather depressing and fatalistic view, but I think the correct one. It’s true that Netanyahu is not a credible partner for peace. Neither is Hamas. The president of the United States cannot change that. There are insuperable structural impediments to peace right now, and wishing them away by eliding them from your analysis is not the answer. Assume No Hamas is not a negotiation strategy.