HAMAS presents a problem from whatever context one looks at it. At the same time, there is every reason to believe it is here to stay for the foreseeable future. It thus becomes absolutely necessary for all parties interested in the Middle East conflict - which is to say, most of the world - to try to make sense of it.
Hamas, an 18-year-old Palestinian organization, has a background as a violent player in the long Israeli-Palestinian struggle. Nonetheless, in January it won an electoral victory in a democratic contest for control of the Palestinian Authority Council. Hamas took 74 seats to 45 for its main rival, Fatah, giving Hamas a majority. Fatah is considered to have lost because of its record of corruption and incompetence in government, as well as for insufficient progress toward a Palestinian state.
Since its electoral victory, Hamas has had difficulty in forming a government. Its difficulties come in no small part from its own background of violence and the positions it takes, including non-recognition of the Israeli state.
Its vulnerability in terms of ever becoming a viable government, capable of ruling the Palestinian territories in Gaza and the West Bank for which it is partly responsible, comes from the fact that the Palestinian Authority has been financially dependent on international aid and on Israel's continued remittance to it as a government of $50 million a month in Palestinian customs duties and taxes that Israel collects on its behalf and has now cut off. Israel collects these revenues because it continues to control the land and sea borders of all the Palestinian territories.
Israel and the United States support continuing to use money for the Palestinian Authority as a stick to seek three changes of position on Hamas' part. These are recognition of the Israeli state, renunciation of violence, and acceptance of previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Part of the second point is a demand for Hamas to disarm its militia.
In the case of the United States, this is a reasonable position to take. The U.S. government doesn't have to give its taxpayers' money to anyone it doesn't want to. Furthermore, whatever objection it has to Hamas' non-recognition of Israel, the organization's attachment to violent means, and its refusal to accept the validity of previous agreements, these three Hamas positions stand squarely in the way of pursuing talks toward what is an extremely valid and useful U.S. goal - the achievement of two states, Israel and Palestine, in the region, living together side by side in peace.
It is important to add, however, that many other important parties in the Middle East drama do not agree with the U.S. and Israeli tactic of using money to try to bring Hamas into line on these positions.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice failed miserably in an attempt to get Saudi Arabia and Egypt to cut the Palestinians off. Iran affirmed its continued financial support of the Palestinian Authority under Hamas leadership. Most importantly, the 25-nation European Union, one of America's partners in the nearly four-year-old Middle East negotiating team, the Quartet, pledged $144 million to the Palestinians last month at the same time the United States and Israel were beating the drums to cut them off. (The Quartet includes the EU, Russia, the United Nations, and the United States.)
The United States and Israel were also seeking to isolate Hamas diplomatically, encouraging the world not to talk to Hamas until it announced changes of position on the offending issues. One Quartet member, Russia, blew this U.S. and Israeli position out of the water when it invited Hamas leaders to Moscow with much publicity.
The U.S. and Israeli quest to isolate Hamas has dealt Russia into the Middle East peace negotiations as a somewhat independent player, for better or for worse. In a similar way, the U.S. attempt to deal with Iran's nuclear development effort through the Europeans - rather than directly with Iran - allowed the Russians to put forward to the Iranians their own solution to that problem - their enrichment of uranium for the Iranians as part of their overall profitable nuclear relationship with Iran. The United States has thus been put pretty much out in the cold on that issue also, left with two unattractive alternatives. The first would be a highly dangerous and undesirable U.S. or U.S.-sanctioned Israeli military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities; the other is to pursue sanctions against Iran in a kicking and screaming U.N. Security Council.
In the meantime, Hamas appears to be holding fast against the Israeli and U.S. death-by-asphyxiation approach. The Palestinian Authority will clearly be able to stagger on with EU, Arab, and other money.
Hamas also seems to be marching forward in spite of U.S. and Israeli-encouraged foot-dragging and obstruction by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and a defeated Fatah.
The Palestinians' internal and external writhing takes place against the background of an Israeli election campaign, to end with a vote March 28. Israeli campaign maneuvers, although normal, do not contribute to a tranquil context for the world to deal with the new Palestinian reality of an elected Hamas-dominated parliament in charge.
Turmoil in that part of the Middle East is certainly not new, but the United States is not dealing with it particularly well at the moment either.
Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.