The "Islamist" challenge


US Middle East policy appears challenged on so many fronts that it is hard to identify what should be isolated for special attention and focus if Washington wants to restore any hint of regional credibility. Chaos prevails in Iraq, where a never-ending and apparently growing insurgency has tied American and remaining allied forces in knots. Bogged down in Baghdad, any greater plans this US administration might have had for further intervention elsewhere appear to have gone by the wayside, nowhere better illustrated than Iran thumbing its nose at the international community regarding its pursuit of nuclear power.

Anti-American sentiments in the region have never been higher, even among those who might have sought US support for their agendas, especially those who took Washington seriously on its pledge to bring greater political and economic liberalization to the region. Repeated frustration at the slow pace of reform in countries already allied with Washington and seeming US reluctance to rock the boat any further by pressuring such friendly regimes to do more has disillusioned many pro-democracy activists in the region. Perhaps worse for Washington, the US invasion of Iraq and the continued failure to pressure Israel to accept even the minimum demands of Palestinians have left such activists embarrassed and wary of any overt US support.

It is in Palestine, Israeli protestations notwithstanding, that the US would seem to stand the best chance of making inroads in restoring its credibility in the short term and thus any chance of fulfilling its regional policy objectives in the long term.

Indeed, Palestine offers Washington a chance to kill two birds with one stone. The problem for this administration is that the key lies with Hamas, and that Washington is currently making all the wrong moves.

Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the prevailing calm and upcoming Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections all constitute opportunities to create a positive momentum. Indeed, events last week in Gaza aside, so it has proved. But this momentum is entirely dependent on two things: an Israeli willingness to abandon unilateralism; and order on the Palestinian side. Washington can play a crucial role on both issues.

Israel is so far resisting outside pressure to enter into meaningful negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, it is conditioning any such thing on the PA clamping down on armed opposition factions. In this it appears to be supported by the US. The PA, however, is wary of clamping down for a number of reasons. Most importantly, of course, is the fear of civil war. Hamas is armed and while remarkably disciplined when it comes to internal confrontations, its patience is clearly fraying and worrying confrontations have already taken place. A civil war, while in the short-term interest of Israel, will ultimately serve no one.

And although the growing popularity of Hamas poses a serious problem for the dominant Fateh faction, Fateh itself is split and offers no clear direction for the PA. The most sensible move for the PA leadership would appear to be to include Hamas within itself via democratic elections. That would ensure for the leadership greater leverage over Hamas, greater credibility vis-a-vis its own population and greater legitimacy in any negotiations with Israel. Hamas has signaled its readiness for such a move and parliamentary elections offer the ideal opportunity. One postponement notwithstanding, that was the direction the PA appeared to be following up until recently.

But Israel dug in its heels. At the recent UN summit in New York, first Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and then the foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, expressed Israel’s unequivocal opposition to Hamas’ participation in elections. At first, the US appeared to brush Israel aside. A nuanced statement after a meeting of the Quartet members on the sidelines of the UN summit acknowledged Israeli concerns but also cautioned respect for a "Palestinian political process".

That tune has since changed and internal skirmishes between Hamas and the PA are suddenly making the specter of civil war loom very large indeed. Recent suggestions that parliamentary elections may again be postponed and a state of emergency declared, in addition to the Israeli clampdown on Hamas via a sweeping arrest campaign in the West Bank and direct military action in the Gaza Strip, has left the Islamist movement smarting and backed into a corner.

The US, meanwhile, is missing an opportunity. It cannot back down from the rhetoric created by its "war on terror", but it can acknowledge that the mere desire by Hamas to become part of a body created by the Oslo Accords constitutes a serious moderation, even if implicit, of the group’s position on the conflict. If Washington wants to implement a two-state solution, it needs to strengthen this moderate stream rather than alienate it.

While it may not be able to actively support Hamas running for elections, Washington could at least apply pressure behind the scenes on Israel to allow for the possibility. Including Hamas in the PA’s body politic will stabilize the internal Palestinian situation, strengthen Hamas’ commitment to the legitimacy of the PA and ensure, for the time being, a prolonged commitment to a ceasefire. Washington can then, with greater leeway, apply overt pressure on Israel to abandon a unilateralism that by its very nature dooms any political settlement.

Indeed, zooming out for a second, reaching out to moderate Islamists–who across the region remain the only viable opposition force, not only to existing regimes but also to more radical streams–ought to be a guiding policy if the US hopes to attain any of its regional objectives (assuming that these are indeed the stated objectives of democratization and political liberalization). Doing so with Hamas moderates would send the signal that the American understanding of democracy in the region is not restricted to the participation of those Washington finds acceptable. It is also crucial to getting anywhere in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The greatest long-term challenge for US policy in the region is not in dealing with specific instances in Iraq and Palestine, crucial as these are. The greatest challenge is how Washington decides to come to terms with "Islamists", a moniker that has been thrown around too lightly for too long. The sooner Washington comes to a less black-and-white understanding of Islamic political movements, the better for all.