15 March 2009

Talk to Hamas

Sure, its continued non-recognition of Israel may be a barrier to any lasting and secure settlement... sometime down the road. But it's a position that could also shift down the road, and since coercion and exclusion haven't worked so far to shift it, we should try something new.

Sure, Hamas has yet to renounce the use of force against civilians in the name of political struggle... but that could also change. And the prospects for peace are so bleak right now that we can ill afford to close off future options based only on past behavior.

Both points above are premised on the simple notion that we should not expect the future to be completely like the past, especially if we change our own behavior (to believe the opposite would be to deny our own agency). Neither will the future be radically different; all I am saying is that the simple act of engaging in a dialogue does not foreclose the goal of changing Hamas's commitment to these two unacceptable strategies and positions. But more to the point, there are two positive reasons to expect talking to Hamas to have positive relative payoffs.

First, I don't agree that talking to a previously excluded party doesn't concede anything. In this case, it concedes to Hamas something it has already: some minimal claim to represent some population roughly bounded by some territorial delimitation. Yes, it to some degree would legitimize Hamas as an actor - but with the act of legitimation comes the coupling of responsibility. The act of recognition embeds the party in a constellation of expectations and rules which did not apply to the previously excluded party (even if it would be naive to expect full or even partial compliance). Over time, the normative power of recognition could shift the very interests and identity of Hamas. This is boilerplate constructivism. (Yay! A policy application!)

Second, prospect theory would seem to indicate that granting even minimal concessions could deradicalize some members of the Hamas leadership independent of the goal of changing their preferences. Very roughly, prospect theory basically holds that as an individual moves from the "domain of losses" to the "domain of gains" - basically, as her feeling that she has something to lose increases - she also becomes less risk acceptant and more risk adverse. We obviously don't know where the tipping point is for any given individual, but when dealing with a collection of individuals, granting them ownership over something they did not have before could make them, on average, less willing to adopt radical strategies. Now, I'm sure there are a number of counterarguments from prospect theory that would be important caveats here (e.g perhaps Hamas is mostly composed of individuals whose subjective framings shift quickly back into the domain of losses no matter what gains you give them. But we could find out, by giving them something).

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