Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Hamas Thaw

While it is still early in the game, there are signs that Hamas is feeling the pain of its international isolation and is considering taking steps to change its positions and end its isolation. Hamas officials announced that the organization was considering proposals to soften its stance towards Israel, including adopting the 2002 Arab peace initiative, which endorsed the concept of land-for-peace, various UN resolutions and even the PLO/PA's political platform. Adopting any of these would require Hamas to recognize Israel and consider negotiations to solve the problem of the Palestinians.

Of course, Hamas has not likely had a change of heart, but rather is reacting to the isolation and attendant economic pain. According to the finance minister, the Palestinian economy will, at current levels, collapse in several months. Already, government employees are one month behind in pay. Without aid from Israel, the US, and the EU, Hamas will have nothing to govern, and the organization is apparently beginning to realize that. However, even if any future shift is not genuinely heart-felt, the momentousness of any shift should not be underestimated.


Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

It appears, rather, that the analysis provided by Henry Siegman in the NYRB (publication date 27 April, but written on 29 March, 2006) was on target, wrote Siegman:

'In response to a call by Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's second in command, to Hamas to continue a violent jihad to recover every last "grain of soil from Palestine which was a Muslim land that was occupied by infidels," a Hamas official pointedly stated that "Hamas believes that Islam is completely different [from] the ideology of Mr. al-Zawahiri." He added, "Our battle is against the Israeli occupation and our only concern is to restore our rights and serve our people."[2] Now that Hamas has taken control of the Palestinian Legislative Council and the office of prime minister, the difference between Hamas and political Islam outside of Palestine defines what may be an opportunity that only a Hamas-led government may hold for Israel.

In the choice of candidates for the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hamas's "pragmatists," led by Ismail Haniyeh, the new prime minister, and Abed al-Aziz Duaik, the new speaker of the council, have visibly prevailed over those who are identified as Hamas's hard-liners. And many hardliners themselves have adopted an increasingly moderate tone. Even hard-liners know that Hamas won the elections not because of their uncompromising ideology but because they ran on a moderate platform of clean government and better services.[3] In a post-election opinion poll, only one percent of the respondents said that Hamas's priority should be to implement Islamic law in Palestine, while 73 percent said they still supported a peace deal with Israel and a two-state solution.[4]

If Hamas's advocates of moderation were to prevail and a long-term coexistence were achieved between a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority and Israel, the implications of such an accommodation could be far-reaching indeed—for Israel's relations not only with the Palestinians but with the larger Muslim world as well. For Hamas's imprimatur on such an arrangement would provide Israel with an "insurance policy" of the sort that Fatah is not able to provide.

In his recent book, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, Shlomo Ben Ami, a former foreign minister of Israel, writes of Arafat's passing from the political scene as a "tragedy" because he was "the only man whose signature on an agreement of compromise and reconciliation, which would include giving up unattainable dreams, could have been legitimate in the eyes of his people," and he took this legitimacy with him to the grave.[5] The possibility of an Israeli–Palestinian agreement that enjoys comparable—indeed, perhaps even greater—legitimacy than Arafat could have conferred on it may have been revived by Hamas's entry into Palestinian political life.

Is such an optimistic outcome at all possible? At the least, it is too early to rule it out before the political and ideological trajectory of Hamas's new government can be discerned. The likely direction of that trajectory was recently described to me by a prominent senior member of Hamas's Political Committee in the following terms:
§ Members of Hamas's political directorate do not preclude significant changes over time in their policies toward Israel and in their founding charter, including recognition of Israel, and even mutual minor border adjustments. Such changes depend on Israel's recognition of Palestinian rights. Hamas will settle for nothing less than full reciprocity.
§ Hamas is not opposed to negotiations with Israel, provided negotiations are based on the provision that neither party may act unilaterally to change the situation that prevailed before the 1967 war, and that negotiations, when they are resumed, will take the pre-1967 border as their starting point.
§ Hamas will not renounce its religious belief that Palestine is a waqf, or religious endowment, assigned by God to Muslims for all time. However, this theological belief does not preclude accommodation to temporal realities and international law, including Israel's statehood.[6]
§ Hamas is prepared to abide by a long-term hudna, or cease-fire, which would end all violence. Here again, complete reciprocity must prevail, and Israel must end all attacks on Palestinians. If Israel agrees to the cease-fire, Hamas will take responsibility for preventing and punishing Palestinian violations, whether committed by Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Intifada, or its own people. Hamas understands that it cannot demand recognition as the legitimate government of Palestine if it is not prepared to enforce such a cease-fire, in the context of its responsibility for law and order.
§ Hamas's first priority will be to revitalize Palestinian society by strengthening the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the separation of powers between various branches of government, and the professionalizing and accountability of the security services. It will aim to end corruption in government and implement new economic and social initiatives that are appropriate to the Palestinians' present circumstances. (My Hamas informant told me that well before the recent legislative elections, Hamas had commissioned teams of experts to prepare detailed plans for the economic and social recovery of Palestinian society; he said that the implementation of these plans would be Hamas's highest priority, but he did not discuss their content.)
§ Hamas will not seek to impose standards of religious behavior and piety on the Palestinian population, such as the wearing of the veil or the abaya, although Hamas believes that certain standards of public modesty— but not of religious observance— should be followed by everyone.

These views are exceptional only in their comprehensiveness. Similar views have been expressed for some time by other Hamas moderates as well. Ismail Abu Shanab (assassinated by Israel) said that Hamas would halt its armed struggle if "the Israelis are willing to fully withdraw from the 1967 occupied territories and present a timetable for doing so."[7]

The Hamas leader Mohammed Ghazal said last year that Hamas's charter is not the Koran. "Historically," he said, "we believe all Palestine belongs to Palestinians, but we're talking now about reality, about political solutions.... I don't think there will be a problem of negotiating with the Israelis."[8] It is a sentiment echoed by Hasan Yousif, the Hamas leader in the West Bank who is now in an Israeli jail: "We have accepted the principle of accepting a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders."[9]

More recently, and by far more importantly, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said that not only did he approve a meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert but added that if Abbas brings back something that the Palestinian people approved, Hamas would change its positions. [....]

Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have led Israel's international campaign to isolate and bring down Hamas unless it clearly foreswears the right to violent "resistance" to Israel's occupation and recognizes Israel's right to exist. Ironically, the appropriateness of both demands is compromised when they are advanced by Olmert and Livni, for both are Likud "princes"—the term applied to politically active sons and daughters of the founders of the Irgun who owe their positions of leadership in large part to that fact. What distinguished the Irgun was its resort to terrorism in the cause of the Jewish struggle for statehood and its complete rejection of Palestinian claims to any part of Palestine. In these two respects, at least, the Irgun closely resembled Hamas.

Indeed, according to the historian Benny Morris, it is the Irgun that established the precedent of systematically targeting civilians. In his book Righteous Victims, Morris writes that "the upsurge of Arab terrorism in 1937 triggered a wave of Irgun bombings against Arab crowds and buses, introducing a new dimension to the conflict." While, in the past, Arabs had "sniped at cars and pedestrians and occasionally lobbed a grenade, often killing or injuring a few bystanders or passengers," now "for the first time, massive bombs were placed in crowded Arab centers, and dozens of people were indiscriminately murdered and maimed." Morris notes that "this 'innovation' soon found Arab imitators."[13]

So far as I know, neither Olmert nor Livni have criticized or repudiated the Irgun's terror activity, which gives their condemnation of Hamas a certain whiff of hypocrisy. This is not to suggest that Hamas's suicide bombings have been anything less than barbaric (as was the Irgun's targeting of Arab civilians); and if such terrorist acts are not discontinued this would be a sufficient cause to quarantine the Hamas government and bring it down. It is to say that the LIKUD'S OWN HISTORY ARGUES THAT TERRORISTS CAN TRANSFORM THEMSELVES IF THEY HAVE REASON TO BELIEVE THAT LEGITIMATE NATIONAL GOALS CAN BE ACHIEVED BY POLITICAL MEANS.' [emphasis added]

Notes 2-8 and 13:
[2] Associated Press, March 5, 2006.
[3] Jackson Diehl, "Caught Between Ballots and Bullets," The Washington Post, February 13, 2006.
[4] "The Palestinian Political Pulse," Near East Consulting, February 28, 2006.
[5] Shlomo Ben-Ami, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli–Arab Tragedy (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 324.
[6] Both the problem and the solution parallel the situation on Israel's side. Religious Jews believe that God promised all of Palestine to the Jewish people for all time. And, they will not agree to relinquish that religious claim. However, they are prepared to defer its implementation to a messianic era in God's own time.
[7] Matthew Gutman, Nina Gilbert, and Herb Keinon, "Hamas Official Has a Vision of Living Next to Israel," The Jerusalem Post, June 25, 2003.
[8] "Hamas: We'll Rethink Call to Destroy Israel," Reuters/Yedioth Ahronoth, September 21, 2005.
[13] Benny Morris, Righteous Victims (Vintage, 1999), p. 147.

Seth Weinberger said...


It may be true that only Arafat carried sufficient legitimacy with the Palestinian people to be able to strike a deal with Israel. But that's one of the critical problems: Arafat was unwilling to strike a deal. At several points, including Camp David in 2000, Arafat had the opportunity to seal a deal that would have given the Palestinians as much as they could possibly hope to obtain in negotiations. And yet Arafat refused. He also refused to his his legitimacy to consolidate his power and crack down on and disarm the Islamic groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

This is quite analagous to our discussion of the UN. Legitimacy is not sufficient to produce results; power and will are essential as well. Arafat may have had the legitimacy, and possibly even (although I doubt it) the power, but he certainly lacked the will. And this is a critical reason for the wretchedness of his people today.

Patrick said...


My letter was intended to show how and why the withdrawal of funding for the Hamas-led government by the US and EU may not be a plausible or sufficient explanation for the so-called Hamas Thaw.

I can't here enter into a debate about Arafat and the peace process (or lack thereof) but will state that, once more, we are poles apart. The Israelis did everything they could to undermine the power of Arafat (don't you recall the rather systematic destruction of an already weak police and security infrastructure, whereupon the Israelis proceeded to demand that Arafat crack down on 'militants'?). Their divide and conquer strategy was quite effective: stir up the militants with any and all means of provocation, and then proceed to show how Arafat was unwilling to clamp down on the militants. As to the peace process itself, my perspective has been shaped by, among others (e.g., Noam Chomsky, Charles Glass, and Edward Said...), Jerome Slater, in particular his article, 'What Went Wrong? The Collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process,' Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 116, No. 2 (Summer 2001), pp. 171-1999. See too: Edward R. Said, The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After (New York: Vintage, 2001 ed.).

While Arafat and Fatah can be held responsible for at least some of the socio-economic misery of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the overwhelming bulk of blame can be laid at the door of successive Israeli governments.... The position of all the Zionist parties on the 'demographic problem' presented by the Palestinian presence in Israel speaks volumes on how Israelis are not yet ready to concede the full panoply of human rights to their Semitic brothers and sisters either in or outside Israel (cf. Ilan Pappe's recent article on this topic in the London Review of Books, Vol. 28, No. 8, April 20, 2006). As Stanley Cohen has written, 'There are, of course, good historical reasons why Israeli Jews should have a defensive self-image and character armour of insecurity and permanent victimhood. The result is a xenophobia that would be called "racism" anywhere else, an exclusion of Palestinians from a shared moral universe and an obsessional self-absorption: what we do to them is less important than what this does to us. The close interpenetration between military and civilian life...means that the public is less an "audience" than a reliable source for confirming common neutralizations. Perpetrators can always assume a populist vindication. The institutions of democratic accountability, however, send out a more ambiguous message: abuses are authorized (otherwise they would not happen), but condemned and disowned if the become too visible or gross.'