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January 20, 2012 11:12 am

The Risk of Talking to Terrorists

avatar by Dore Gold

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Taliban members. Photo: wiki commons.

The risk of talking to terrorists

During the last two weeks the U.S. came closer than ever to launching negotiations with the Taliban as part of the Obama administration’s effort to end its military involvement in Afghanistan. The Taliban is opening an office in Qatar for that very purpose. A year ago, the administration began outlining this new policy when it stated that it was prepared to talk to the Taliban under the assumption that the group would lay down its arms, renounce al-Qaida and terrorism more generally, and accept the principle that they would work within the constitution of Afghanistan.

Previously, these were American preconditions to negotiations, but lately the administration no longer insists on obtaining these concessions from the Taliban up front. Let us remember that the U.S. went to war against the Taliban in 2001, because it had provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida prior to the Sept. 11 terror attacks. As a result, senior Taliban leaders were added to the U.N.’s list of international terrorists.

Planned U.S. talks with the Taliban is only the latest of example of a state that is reconsidering negotiating with its enemy – especially an enemy that comes from the ranks of radical Islam. There have been multiple cases of this phenomenon. Two experts in Irish history at Cambridge University, John Bew and Martyn Frampton, wrote an important book called “Talking to Terrorists,” in which they lay out criteria for entering these kinds of discussions.

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The book is built around the British decision to negotiate with the IRA, leading to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which is often held out by British politicians as proof that talks with terrorists work. Indeed, for years British officials have been lecturing Israelis to open talks with Hamas. Internally there have been parliamentary committees in London calling on the British government to open a channel of communication with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Bew and Frampton warn their readers that negotiations with terrorists, under the wrong conditions, can lead to an escalation of violence. They give as an example one of the earliest British efforts to talk to the IRA in 1972, which had agreed to a short-term truce, though it had not given up on violence. The IRA understood from the British initiative to talk to them that its military strategy was working, soon after it broke the truce with 22 bombing attacks in a single day.

In short, premature dialogue did not lead to peace but rather to a much worse situation because it was seen as a sign of weakness. Decades later, in the 1990s, the British-IRA talks succeeded, according to Bew and Frampton, because the British security services had defeated them first. The IRA had been heavily infiltrated and its operational capacity had been severely eroded.

Bew and Frampton also write that diplomats should not apply the lessons of the Northern Ireland peace process to the case of Hamas. Whereas the IRA had limited aims that applied territorially to Northern Ireland, Hamas has wider aims beyond the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The IRA did not want to destroy the British state and take control of London; Hamas wants to eliminate Israel and seize Jerusalem.

After it rejects all diplomatic initiatives to resolve Israeli-Palestinian differences, the Hamas charter from 1988 states: “…There is no solution to the Palestinian problem except for jihad.” In 2006, Mahmoud al-Zahar, who would become the Hamas foreign minister, was asked whether Hamas might change its charter, in light of its takeover of the Gaza Strip, and Zahar answered that his organization was not prepared to change “a single word.”

Why is this relevant today? When Mahmoud Abbas and the leadership of the PLO met with Hamas leaders like Khaled Mashaal and Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Shalah in Cairo on Dec. 22, Palestinian spokesmen began putting out the story that Fatah was succeeding in moderating Hamas though their dialogue – thus making a virtue out of necessity. In essence, Abbas’ spokesmen were trying to make excuses for the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement by portraying it as a diplomatic achievement. In fact, there were those who also argued that because of the Arab Spring and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas was less isolated and therefore more prone to adopt new positions.

In covering the Cairo meetings, the correspondent for the Washington Post wrote about the “signs of pragmatism” coming out of Hamas. Some of the Israeli press were not much better: Indeed, Ha’aretz ran a banner headline on Dec. 29, 2011, announcing: “Mashaal Ordered to Stop Terror Against Israel.” The front-page article was based on “senior Fatah sources,” who told the Israeli press that this breakthrough in the Hamas position was the result of Abbas’ talks in Cairo. Much of this writing about the moderation of Hamas was purely the product of Palestinian Authority propaganda. For five days after the Cairo meeting, the Hamas released an official announcement in Arabic:

“We underline our adherence to our right to the struggle in all its forms, particularly the armed struggle, for the removal of the occupation. The way of resistance, jihad, and martyrdom for Allah has proved that it is the only way to forcefully attain our rights and the liberation of our land, Al-Quds [Jerusalem], and our holy places.”

Nor was there a change of heart in Hamas prior to the Cairo meetings. Eight days earlier Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh gave an address in the Gaza Strip, which was broadcast on Hamas television, in which he declared:

“Today, we say, in a clear and unambiguous fashion: The armed resistance and armed struggle are our strategic choice and our path to liberate the Palestinian land, from the sea to the river, and to drive the usurping invaders out of the blessed land of Palestine.”

It appears that with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in surrounding Arab states, Hamas does not feel inhibited about expressing these hard-line positions. In fact, Hamas does not perceive itself in any way like the defeated party that has to change in order to survive, given the support it is receiving across the Middle East. In contrast, Abbas went to Cairo, without his traditional backing from President Hosni Mubarak, and as a result of the new regional reality, he felt he had little choice but to embrace Hamas. In short, in stressing his role in “moderating” Hamas, Abbas was trying to make a virtue out of necessity.

The pressures that Israel will face in the years ahead to negotiate with Hamas will undoubtedly be affected by the outcome of the U.S. experiment with the Taliban. The U.S.-Taliban talks will not be simple. Last September, when the Afghan government tried to launch such negotiations, the Taliban envoy killed the Afghan representative with a bomb hidden in his turban.

Moreover, the Taliban is not entering talks with the U.S. as a defeated party. After all, the U.S. has already announced that it will end combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014. In 2009, Bew and Frampton cautioned Western coalition forces from talking to the Taliban, unless they first defeat them so that the West can negotiate from a position of strength. But these are unlikely to be the conditions for talks with the Taliban, which will heavily influence their chances of success.

This piece was first published in Israel Hayom.

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