The ceasefire established Wednesday between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas (which controls the Gaza Strip) ended a week of rocket attacks from both sides that have left over 160 people dead. For orchestrating a halt in the most recent bloodshed in one of the world’s most conflict-ridden areas, I believe congratulations are in order; so hats off to President Obama, to Egyptian President Muhamed Morsi, and to Hillary (2016?) for brokering the deal. The US and Egypt fulfilled their roles as great world powers, with Hillary negotiating on behalf of US ally Israel and Morsi advocating for Hamas. Despite some initial hiccups, the ceasefire was eventually successful because both Israel and Hamas had a powerful ally backing them up in international talks. But this neat diplomatic solution isn’t something the US should expect to be the norm in foreign policy going forward. Rather, the success of these negotiations should serve as a reminder that US diplomacy is disturbingly limited in what it can achieve because of its refusal to negotiate with terrorist groups.
The truth is, the Obama administration should thank its lucky stars for President Morsi. Despite a three decade-long peace treaty with Israel, Morsi (who was elected relatively recently) recalled his ambassador from Israel and came out strongly in support of Hamas. Whether due to the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideological ties with Hamas or to his own accountability to public support for the Palestinian cause as a democratically elected leader, the result of Morsi’s actions was the same: Hamas had a friend (and the largest Arab country in the region to boot) to intercede on its behalf in ceasefire negotiations.
But what would have happened without Morsi? Imagine, for a moment, that the US was the only foreign power involved in the ceasefire agreement. The UN Security Council had failed to produce a resolution on the issue, and it was up to American diplomats to negotiate the end of the violence. The US would have been extremely crippled in its ability to mediate between the two sides because of the government’s long-standing policy against negotiating with terrorists (a category in which Hamas is definitively included). Since the years of the Reagan administration, the US has been reluctant to speak directly with members of terrorist groups, believing that to do so would grant them a legitimacy that violent non-state actors do not deserve. This initiative was further institutionalized in the years following the September 11th terrorist attacks, with the creation of the Terrorist Watch List. But this idea, even as central to American foreign policy as it has been for years, has different implications today, because the identity of many “terrorist organizations” has evolved considerably over time.
Almost a year ago, I participated in a cultural exchange program in Lebanon through which I was given the opportunity to visit the American embassy in Beirut. After the usual formalities (standing in line for nearly two hours while they checked all our passports, putting my notebook and pencil through an X-ray machine, having said pencil confiscated as a potential weapon), we sat down in a conference room with two foreign service officers and sipped tea and coffee as they told us about the embassy’s work and mission. During the question and answer session, I remember that one of the diplomats was asked something about entering into talks with Hezbollah. The woman, looking shocked, replied something to the effect of, “The United States does not negotiate with terrorists.” And that was the end of that. We moved on to talk about the embassy’s success in facilitating certain types of agricultural programs.
The very next day, our bus took us to a small apartment building in a Beiruti suburb that served as an office of Hezbollah. We sat down on plush couches, were served juice boxes and tiny pastries, and awaited the arrival of Ammar al-Moussawi, who holds the title of Hezbollah International Relations officer. He eventually breezed in, looking supremely bored and uninterested in our group. Moussawi talked for a while about social welfare programs and the history of Hezbollah, and then someone asked him something about the possibility of US-Hezbollah negotiations. He shrugged, blasé as ever, and said sure, but that the United States has always refused to talk directly and openly with his organization. Then he went right back to talking about welfare.
What struck me most about these two meetings, which were juxtaposed in such a surreal way, were the similarities of the diplomats and their manner of receiving us. Both the foreign service officers and Moussawi seemed more concerned with conveying to us the history of the US and Hezbollah in Lebanon, respectively, and the various social programs they had each implemented, than discussing foreign policy. They were, at their core, more public relations representatives than anything else. And despite how much each emphasized their organization’s importance in the region, neither went into detail on their interactions with the other. There was only the rigid fact, accepted unquestioningly by both, that negotiations were off the table. The United States’ refusal to negotiate with those it classifies as “terrorists” is fully institutionalized and rarely challenged, but this could be a detriment to its international influence and efficacy today, as the nature of terrorist groups is more complex than it used to be.
It is time for the US to adopt a more discerning policy concerning terrorist groups. In a 2007 article in Foreign Affairs, Peter R. Neumann called the reasons against negotiating with such organizations “simple,” claiming that “negotiations give legitimacy to terrorists and their methods and undermine actors who have pursued political change through peaceful means.” However, the reality of today’s alleged “terrorists” is much more complicated than this explanation implies. To discuss a specific example, Hamas and Hezbollah are not simply “terrorist organizations,” they are welfare providers with massive popular support, and what’s more, they are legitimate political parties that have been democratically elected to positions of power within their respective governments. Refusing to negotiate with them means ignoring the elected representatives of millions of people across the Middle East. This is a rigid policy, a remnant from the 1980’s that is outdated in today’s world, where the lines between state and non-governmental organizations are more blurred than ever.
I am not saying negotiating with terrorist groups would be an easy process, and I am definitely not saying it would be enjoyable. I will freely admit that during our group’s meeting with Osama Hamdan (one of the top Hamas representatives in Lebanon), over half of us fell asleep because he was so boring. But all jokes aside, assistance from politicians like Morsi is not something on which the US can rely in the future. The US needs to be more flexible in its foreign policy, and to do that, it needs to recognize that negotiating with groups traditionally classified as “terrorist organizations” can have real positive effects. Not only does it legitimize the concerns of the populations these organizations represent, but (as a study released earlier this year found) it can actually reduce the risk of violent attacks by these groups. It is time for the US government to stop being so ideologically rigid and start being more practical in this particular area of its foreign policy, and revisiting its policy on negotiations with terrorist organizations is the first step in this process.