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Give and Take Can Strengthen Moderates

Posted by vmsalama on September 6, 2007

Washington Post/Newsweek – PostGlobal   

by Vivian Salama

The question facing the South Korean government, like many governments before it, is simple: does negotiating with terrorists excuse – or even encourage – violence?

South Korean Hostages released by Taliban

(Above: South Korean hostages released by Taliban)

It is very difficult to call any negotiation “insensible” if it spares hostages’ lives, but the circumstances vary drastically in each case. To consolidate this response, I will treat all “terrorists” as one – though we can certainly break down the meaning of “terrorist” and further complicate a complex matter.

Western democracies’ logic is essentially never to bow down to violence, nor to reward terrorists for using it. But this is easier said than done. Governments have historically turned to terrorist organizations to further their political agendas. Israel signed the 1993 Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Liberation Organization even though the PLO was considered a terrorist organization and refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Years earlier, the Jewish State also allowed Hamas to operate unhindered during the first Intifada in hopes that it would challenge, and weaken, the authority of Yasser Arafat. As a result, Israel faced a stronger Hamas during the Second Intifada.

More recently, Israel and the West have been criticized for resisting any kind of negotiation with Hamas after the group won an unprecedented victory in the January 2006 elections. This is a government democratically elected by the people of the Palestinian territories and East Jerusalem. By refusing categorically to negotiate with that government, Western governments and Israel risk undermining the democratic process that they – particularly the Bush Administration – have worked to establish in the region.

Refusing any and all negotiation eliminates the chance of finding common ground. On the other hand, agreeing to negotiate is often a bargaining tool, one that can stem violence and will often lead to a ceasefire. A classic example of such fruitful negotiation is the IRA’s 2005 pledge to end violence in its fight for a united Ireland. It was a lesson in persistence and persuasion by a government actor – in this case, the British government – in helping a terrorist organization consider peaceful alternatives.

Such an option may seem overly optimistic given the current climate in the “War Against Terror.” But a categorical refusal to negotiate can cloud the real issues at hand, leaving room for terrorists and their supporters to accuse the opposing government of undemocratic, oppressive or dictatorial practices.

Agreeing to negotiate often means taking the much longer view toward the immediate issue. In a 1998 interview with the Paris-based news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski insisted that the Carter Administration should not regret supporting Afghanistan’s Islamic fundamentalists in the late 1970s. He asked, “What is more important to the history of the world – the Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”

Or consider North Korea, which is reportedly coming off the list of “terrorist” countries. It will be interesting to see what effect that has on North Koreans’ attitudes toward the United States, and whether it helps to speed up denuclearization. Of course, none of this would have happened without negotiation.

There’s no question that negotiations are give-and-take; nothing is guaranteed. In Hamas’ case, there was no way to tell whether, given Hamas’ political inexperience, negotiating with Western leaders might have strengthened the group’s moderate wing. These terrorist groups often lack internal cohesion. Given the opportunity, governments that are willing to negotiate may make considerably more progress by getting a foot in the door than by completely shutting terrorists groups out.


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