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Biden really should reach out to Hamas

January 26, 2021 at 9:27 am

US President Joe Biden (R) and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas sit during a meeting at the presidential compound in the city of Ramallah, in the West Bank, on 9 March 2016 [AFP/Getty Images]

Credible reports are now emerging of failed plots by Donald Trump to subvert democracy in America and overturn the peoples’ vote. That is why the recurrent theme of US President Joe Biden’s inauguration day was that democracy is precious.

Trump is said to be inconsolable about losing the election. It is probably true to say that a US president hasn’t been so angry at the outcome of a democratic vote since the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip decided in 2006 that they wanted to be governed by Hamas. The then President George W Bush was apparently furious that the free and fair election verified by independent observers had produced Hamas as the winning party. Spurred on by Israel, Bush’s immediate response was to isolate the Palestinians; he even tried to overturn the election result.

Bush also roped in his British poodle to join in the boycott of the Ismail Haniyeh-led Hamas government; the then Prime Minister Tony Blair was happy to oblige. In the years since then, the persecution of the Palestinians for exercising their democratic rights remains disgracefully brutal.

It is to be hoped, therefore, that President Biden’s grand words about democracy as he entered the White House extend beyond America’s borders and will also apply to May’s Palestinian elections. After such heartfelt eloquence on the steps of the Capitol Building last week, Biden must surely encourage everyone involved to proceed with sincerity, including the Israeli government — which can stymie the election if it wants to, simply by banning Jerusalemites from participating — and then, no matter who wins, accept the results. As must Israel.

READ: Was the US Embassy move to Jerusalem actually a hoax? 

Hamas may not be the favoured choice in Washington, London or anywhere else, but that matters not. For once, we should listen to the Palestinian people and respect their decision because in any democracy worth its salt, it is the choice of the voters that matters. Biden, Boris Johnson and the others should lead by example, and not simply dance to Israel’s tune if — and probably when — it shouts “security”, “existential threat” or any other “self-defence” red herring.

Biden claims to understand that democracy is all about what the people, not the powerful, want. If the Hamas candidate becomes president and others win a significant number of seats in the Legislative Council, enough to form or join the government, then the new administration in Washington must — if the US president’s words are to count for anything at all — start to engage with the movement.

The Biden team may prefer to have honest brokers to start with who can be trusted by all sides, in which case both Qatar and Turkey should step up to the plate and help to get the parties sitting together to discuss the future of a viable Palestinian state. This would be real progress because, let’s face it, the regular faces at the negotiation table have achieved nothing other than the erosion of Palestinian rights over the past three decades.

US President Donald Trump has hailed the “dawn of a new Middle East” and killed the peace process - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

US President Donald Trump has hailed the “dawn of a new Middle East” and killed the peace process – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

In a rare moment of honesty, Tony Blair admitted in 2017 that he and other world leaders were wrong to yield to Israeli pressure to impose an immediate boycott of Hamas after the Islamic Movement won the Palestinian elections in 2006. Without much thought to the long term consequences, Bush, Blair and other leaders severed relations with the newly-elected government until and unless it agreed to recognise Israel, renounce violence and abide by previous agreements between its Fatah predecessors and the occupation state. Predictably, Hamas did not respond well to such demands, and have been demonised and ostracised ever since. The Palestinians were punished for exercising their democratic rights, and the punishment is ongoing. Sadly, other Palestinians have played a leading role in this shabby treatment. Shame on you and your cronies Mahmoud Abbas.

This time round there are, it seems, wiser, more sanguine heads in the White House now that Trump and his team of far right pro-Israel cheerleaders have flown off into the sunset. In theory, therefore, the future should look brighter for Hamas and the people of Palestine, given that the movement has spent its years out in the cold investing in the building of bridges and strategic alliances.

READ: Dirty tricks could see Muslims lose control of Al Aqsa Mosque 

In my opinion, Biden would be short-sighted not to engage with the Hamas leadership, not least because Ismail Haniyeh is, without doubt, a hugely respected figure across the Middle East and beyond among secular and Islamic groups alike. Haniyeh, like Biden, is someone who has a deep and sincere attachment to his faith; he is certainly one of the only political leaders in the region who leads the all-important Friday prayer regularly and is known and respected personally by countless ordinary people.

I met the former Prime Minister at his home in Al-Shati (Beach) Refugee Camp on the edge of Gaza City after Israel’s devastating 2008/9 military offensive known as Operation Cast Lead. Yes, he still lives in the camp in which he was born and raised. It was a poignant moment when we met, as it was Haniyeh’s first visit to his home in more than 100 days because of the very real threat of being assassinated by Israel during its offensive. The settler-colonial state has a proven track record of targeting Hamas political leaders.

So if Biden is as serious about democracy as he claims to be, he should support the Palestinians regardless of who they vote for; encourage free and fair elections and put pressure on regional busybodies such as the UAE to keep out of them; and then engage with the leadership if, as is being tipped, Hamas emerges as a major winner in May. The Palestinian elections need to be treated by Washington with as much respect as the presidential poll which delivered the new US president to the Oval Office last week. Anything less undermines and discredits the fine speeches on the steps of the Capitol Building.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.