Let’s Have A Real Debate About ‘Engaging’ Hamas

Our guest blogger is Brian Katulis, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

With attempts to achieve a de-escalation of the violence in Gaza and southern Israel appearing to yield results in Egypt this week, the question that arises is what does it mean to “engage” Hamas? The idea of engaging Hamas has grown in vogue among some quarters in the national security debate and deserves closer scrutiny.

The long-standing dilemma of whether or not to engage the Palestinian terrorist organization directly in diplomacy became an even hotter topic after the January 2006 Palestinian elections brought Hamas to power. The debate only grew after Hamas used force to oust its rivals in Gaza in June 2007. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s visits last month with Hamas leaders once again put the focus on the issue– making it seem like simply sitting down with Hamas leaders without conditions could make the Middle East’s multiple problems melt away after a few handshakes.

Ghaith Al-Omari, the director of advocacy at the American Task Force on Palestine and a former peace negotiator and advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, outlines the downsides of unconditional engagement with Hamas in a piece today for the Middle East Bulletin of the Center for American Progress.


The article challenges the conventional wisdom among some analysts who make it seem that engaging Hamas is the lynchpin to advancing a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Al-Omari argues that “any engagement that goes beyond achieving de-escalation in Gaza would serve to bolster Hamas at the expense of those working toward a two-state solution.” He highlights tremendous downsides to an approach of unconditional engagement, including the fact that it would undermine pragmatic and moderate Palestinian leaders who are putting everything on the line to work for a two-state solution and send the message that extremism and violence pays.

It’s an important perspective to have in a debate that has been dominated by two extreme polar opposites — one that says Hamas engagement is essential for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the other that says the completely ignoring Hamas is the only way forward. Omari’s argument recognizes that pragmatically dealing with Hamas is necessary for getting to some de-escalation of the current violence — but that taking the Hamas engagement arguments as far as others do tend to ignore some important realities and may very well overstate the benefits of an unconditional engagement with Hamas.