Burman: Should U.S. diplomats meet with Hamas leaders when conducting 'shuttle diplomacy' in the Middle East?

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November 23, 2012
Ryerson School of Journalism, world affairs columnist for the Toronto Star, and former head of Al Jazeera English and CBC News

“Yes”, “yes”, a thousand times “yes”. The deadly stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians is a dangerous threat to all sides, including to the State of Israel. If the current Israeli government is too foolish to recognize this, surely its American friends are not. The curse of the Middle East is that millions of innocent people have been consistently betrayed by their self-serving leaders. In this case, that certainly includes the cowardly leadership of Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and the current Israeli government.

However, Hamas is a powerful reality in the region and that is a fact of life, whether or not you like them. For any deal to matter, Hamas needs to be at the table. In modern history, no enduring “settlement’ between warring parties has ever been achieved without negotiations. The Americans know this, which is why they have “negotiated” with their enemies countless times in recent decades. And even the Israeli government knows this, since it was Israeli-Hamas negotiations in 2011 which led to the release by Hamas of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for more than 1000 Palestinian prisoners. After decades of promising he would never deal with “terrorists”, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year did just that.

After Shalit's release last October, Efraim Halevy, former chief of the Israeli Mossad, wrote that this should be the beginning, not the end, of Israel's negotiations with Hamas: "Netanyahu seized the opportunity to end the Shalit saga because, as he put it after the exchange, he felt the chance might never return. Surely, therefore, he should not disregard the bitter lessons of history, which show that circumstances always change, but sometimes for the worse.’

It is not surprising that Netanyahu has done nothing since Shalit’s release to work towards peace. His interest is clearly to conquer the Palestinians, not to settle with them. But it is shocking and disheartening that the Americans, who largely bankroll Netanyahu's government, have stood by and allowed him to do this. At this perilous stage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – with the involvement of Iran looming ever larger – the least that the government of Barack Obama must do now is to include Hamas directly in its diplomacy.