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Hamas: The Last Chance for Peace?

1.

The rising tide of Muslim anger at the US and the West—as recorded by the Pew Poll and other opinion surveys—and the recent successes of political Islam have given many Israelis a newly urgent sense that they are under siege. Sever Plotzker, a well-known Israeli columnist, recently wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s most widely circulated newspaper, that

the Palestinian vote connects with the chilling phenomena taking place in the Arab world, whose resonant echoes penetrate every household in Israel…. Israel finds itself an inch away from an erupting volcano, on the frontlines of the “clash of civilization.”1

In Iraq, the Shiite parties defeated not only the Sunnis but also secular political parties; in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s representation in the parliament increased fivefold; and in Palestine, legislative elections were swept by Hamas. The anti-Semitic rantings of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his government’s determination to develop nuclear weapons have only further exacerbated Israeli fears.

Israel is facing not only the threats of Hamas, an organization that has affirmed the right to violently resist Israel’s occupation and has denied Israel’s right to exist, but also the more general anger from the larger Muslim world toward the West. The two are often conflated, but it is a dangerously misleading conflation, for it gives a confused view of both the dangers and the opportunities created by Hamas’s election victory, however meager the latter may appear to be.

The anger of the Muslim world toward the West is fueled by the humiliations of their Palestinian fellow Muslims who live under Israeli occupation; by what Muslims consider the theft of Palestine, land that is part of Dar al-Islam, the eternal domain of Muslims, in which the West has been complicit; by the war in Iraq and its aftermath; by the horrors that have occurred, and continue to occur, in US military prisons; and by the hypocrisies of America’s plans to install democracy in various parts of the world. This hostility is seen as evidence of the religious and cultural confrontation between Islam and the Christian West that Samuel Huntington has famously argued has become the new global fault line that has replaced the cold war. Paradoxically, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is the lesser of the two threats, because it is political rather than religious in character, and Palestinian society is among the most secular in the Arab world.

Even for Hamas, the national component of its struggle (ironically at odds with the “globalism” of traditional Islam that recognizes no national borders within the Domain of Islam) generally takes precedence over its religious imperatives when the two conflict. This is so not only because most Palestinians oppose Hamas’s religious goals, particularly efforts to regulate their personal religious behavior, but more importantly because Hamas itself is as much a Palestinian national movement as it is a religious one.

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.

2.

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.

These sentiments are in striking contrast to the odiousness of Hamas’s founding charter (of August 18, 1988), which relies on an extreme anti-Jewish reading of Islamic religious sources and on classical anti-Semitic defamations such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Such hateful language was not entirely absent from PLO documents and statements in its pre-Oslo days, and one can find comparable demonization of Palestinians by some Jewish groups, including official Israeli political parties that advocate ethnic cleansing of all Palestinian residents of the West Bank. As noted by Henry Kissinger in a recent Op-Ed article,10 rejection and demonization are all too common in ethnic and political conflict, as is unexpected moderation by former extremists after they enter a political process and assume responsibility for the well-being of those who brought them to office.

The leaders of Israel’s current government claim that no peace process is possible with a Hamas-led Palestinian government. But some of the best-informed observers of the Israeli– Palestinian conflict believe that no lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians is possible without Hamas’s participation. Nearly three years ago, well before anyone anticipated that Hamas might be running the Palestinian Authority, Efraim Halevy, former head of the Mossad, Israel’s CIA, wrote the following:

Hamas constitutes about a fifth of Palestinian society. Because they are an active, engaged and aware group, they have more political weight. So anyone who thinks it’s possible to ignore such a central element of Palestinian society is simply mistaken. Anyone who thinks that Hamas will one day evaporate is similarly mistaken. Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister] will not kill thousands of Palestinians in order to overcome the Islamic movements. In my view, then, the strategy vis-à-vis Hamas should be one of brutal force against its terrorist aspect, while at the same time signaling its political and religious leadership that if they take a moderate approach and enter the fabric of the Palestinian establishment, we will not view that as a negative development. I think that in the end there will be no way around Hamas being a partner in the Palestinian government. I believe that if that happens there is a chance that it will be domesticated. Its destructive force will be reduced.11

  1. 1

    Sever Plotzker, “Beyond a Bad Dream,” Yedioth Ahronoth, February 26, 2006.

  2. 2

    Associated Press, March 5, 2006.

  3. 3

    Jackson Diehl, “Caught Between Ballots and Bullets,” The Washington Post, February 13, 2006.

  4. 4

    The Palestinian Political Pulse,” Near East Consulting, February 28, 2006.

  5. 5

    Shlomo Ben-Ami, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli–Arab Tragedy (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 324.

  6. 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. 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. 8

    Hamas: We’ll Rethink Call to Destroy Israel,” Reuters/Yedioth Ahronoth, September 21, 2005.

  9. 9

    Enter Hamas: The Challenges of Political Integration,” International Crisis Group, Middle East Report No. 49, January 18, 2006, p. 21.

  10. 10

    Henry Kissinger, “Sharon’s Legacy and Hamas,” International Herald Tribune, February 15, 2006.

  11. 11

    Ari Shavit, “The Waiting Game” (interview with Ephraim Halevy), Haaretz, September 4, 2003.

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