Can Iran and Hamas Sink Annapolis?

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Suhaib Salem / REUTERS

Senior Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders Mahmoud al-Zahar (L) and Mohammed al-Hendi attend a Hamas-led factional conference in Gaza

As would-be peacemakers bask in the international limelight of the Annapolis conference, back in the Middle East two other parties are serving up notice that no deal will come to pass, if they can help it: Iran and its Palestinian ally, Hamas. "The Annapolis conference was already a failure," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told journalists after a cabinet meeting in Tehran on Wednesday. The U.S. could sponsor a hundred such meetings, he added, and the result would be the same. In Gaza, which is effectively ruled by the fundamentalist Hamas group, anti-Annapolis protesters filled the streets. "They can go to thousands of conferences and we will say in the name of the Palestinian people that we do not accept," Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar told the demonstrators.

The warnings are not to be taken lightly, if history is anything to go by: Iran and Hamas have played a spoiler role in the past, and they could well do so again. In 2000, the once-promising Oslo Accords signed at the White House in 1993 collapsed. The blame was put on a failed attempt to negotiate a final historic peace deal at Camp David, which resulted in a new Palestinian uprising and fierce Israeli counterattack. But the peace process was effectively derailed three years earlier by Iran and two groups to which it supplies political, diplomatic, financial and military support. In 1996, Hamas launched its first major wave of suicide bombings in Israel. At the same time, the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hizballah escalated attacks on Israel. The violence helped defeat then Prime Minister Shimon Peres, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in the Oslo Accords, giving victory to hard-liner Benjamin Netanyhu, a staunch opponent, like Iran and Hamas, of that peace deal.

Since then, Iran, Hamas and Hizballah have grown even stronger. Iran's strategic position became stronger with the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the toppling of Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq, and its pursuit of a nuclear program that has the potential of being diverted into building an atomic weapon. Capitalizing on the failure of the Fatah party of Yasser Arafat to deliver a Palestinian state in negotiations, Hamas triumphed in parliamentary elections last year. Despite being under severe pressure from Israel, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the international community, Hamas recently seized military control of Gaza and continues to hold an Israeli soldier it captured in 2006. For its part, Hizballah not only drove Israeli forces out of Lebanon after a 22-year occupation, but was hailed in the Arab world last year for resisting a massive Israeli incursion into Lebanon. That onslaught was triggered by Hizballah's capture of two Israeli soldiers, and Israel's failure to crush Hizballah or even win the release of its men severely damaged Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's political standing.

One way to defeat the spoilers this time is to ignore any violence they sponsor and persevere toward the goal of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement. Such an approach has merit, given that a majority of Israelis and Arabs desire peace and thus opponents could be scorned for prolonging misery and hopelessness. The problem is that Olmert and Abbas are politically very weak, thanks to past failures in peace and war, and will find it difficult to behave like statesmen in the event of new violence.

To save the fledgling peace process, some voices are calling for the parties to engage rather than fight the spoilers. Many former U.S. officials and some ex-Israeli peace negotiators are advocating that the U.S. and Israel reconsider their policies of isolating Hamas. A letter to Bush calling for the U.N. and U.S. envoys to promote a "genuine dialogue'" on issues including an Israeli-Hamas cease-fire was endorsed this month by such figures as former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft; onetime Deputy Secretary of State and ambassador to Israel Thomas Pickering; and former Israeli Foreign Minister Shomo Ben-Ami.

"We believe that a genuine dialogue with the organization is far preferable to its isolation," they wrote. "It could be conducted, for example, by the U.N. and Quartet Middle East envoys. Promoting a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza would be a good starting point." If Hamas remains ostracized, they added, "prospects that they will play a spoiler role increase dramatically." Renewed Hamas violence, the letter suggested, would undercut Israeli public support for the negotiations. Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia, whose country opposes boycotting Hamas, says that neither Hamas nor hard-line Israeli parties need be given a veto over progress. "You have that kind of position on both sides," he told TIME. "We hope reasonable people, people of peace and good faith, will win the day."

Trita Parsi, author of Treacherous Alliance — The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S., believes that even Iran could be persuaded to play a more constructive role — albeit at the price of accepting its expanding influence in the region. "Excluding Iran from regional diplomacy fuels rather than diminishes Tehran's propensity to act the spoiler," says Parsi. Noting that Iran attended U.S.-initiated international conferences on Afghanistan and Iraq, Parsi says Iran's bluff should have been called by inviting it to attend Annapolis, too. "If Iran declined and the rest of the region attended, then the U.S. would still look good," says Parsi. "If Iran accepted, then significant foreign policy changes could be demanded from Iran."

The Bush Administration is not very inclined to reach out to Tehran, especially as it accuses the Islamic regime of secretly pursuing nuclear weapons with which to dominate the Middle East. But as the White House launches a major Israeli-Palestinian peace effort that will span Bush's final year in office, it has to ask whether achieving a peace agreement is wishful thinking doomed to further failure in the absence of a broader accord with Iran.