Hamas: A Silent Partner for Peace?

What would happen if Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal gave an interview and nearly no one in the West listened? Well then, it would be possible for the Israeli government and the Bush administration to continue with dead-end policies for dealing with the Islamic movement that rules Gaza, without anyone asking questions about failed strategic assumptions.

Meshaal is the Damascus-based head of Hamas' political bureau, its main leadership body. While his precise relationship with the head of the Hamas government in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, is unclear, Meshaal is normally described as Hamas' leader. Last week he gave an interview to Al-Ayyam, a pro-Fatah Palestinian daily. In it, he stressed that he's still committed to the Palestinian unity agreements of 2006, the basis for last year's short-lived Hamas-Fatah power-sharing deal in the Palestinian Authority. He reiterated that he would accept a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 boundaries -- that is, alongside Israel, not in place of it -- though without any commitment to recognize Israel formally.

Put differently, Meshaal was saying that his organization is willing to accept the reality of Israel, even if it is not happy about doing so. He's ready for Hamas to rejoin a unity government with Fatah -- reuniting Gaza and the West Bank -- and to be a silent partner while Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas of Fatah negotiates peace. He has not become a dove, but he is sidling his way toward being a pragmatic hawk. At the least, Meshaal's stance is reason for his adversaries to weigh a renewal of Palestinian unity as an alternative to siege of Gaza.

The Meshaal interview got brief coverage in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, and was picked up by an Italian news agency. In English language press it was barely covered. That's a shame. Asked by Al-Ayyam reporter Abdelrayuf Arnaout if Hamas sought to eradicate Israel, Meshaal answered: "We are committed to the political platform on which we agreed with the other Palestinian forces and in convergence with the Arab position" – meaning the Arab League proposal for full peace with Israel, based on the pre-1967 lines. "All the international parties," Meshaal said, should treat this as the Hamas position, and not "search in the minds of peoples" for their feelings. (More excerpts, translated for me by Palestinian journalist Ata Qaymari, can be found here.

The interview reflects a political and psychological balancing act, says Israeli analyst Menachem Klein of Bar-Ilan University. Meshaal hasn't abjured Hamas' fundamental beliefs, as expressed in the organization's 1988 charter: All of Palestine, including pre-1967 Israel, is an Islamic waqf, sacred trust, to be liberated solely by jihad. But in the course of entering Palestinian electoral politics, Hamas has taken pragmatic positions that contradict the charter -- including acceptance of a de facto two-state outcome. "It's very hard to totally abandon fundamental beliefs. [Meshaal's] solution is to … keep the beliefs, but in the private domain, and to act publicly in a different way," Klein says. By the time of the 2006 national conciliation agreement, notes Amman-based analyst Mouin Rabbani, Hamas had accepted Abbas' right to negotiate with Israeli on behalf of the Palestinians, as part of a deal in which Hamas would be integrated into the PLO.

Let me stress: I am not idealizing Hamas. The organization is quite literally bloody-minded. It remains committed to "armed struggle." With rockets, as with suicide bombings, it has no compunctions about murdering civilians. In Gaza, the enclave it has ruled since last June, mass media and mosque sermons promote hatred of Jews, as The New York Times' Steven Erlanger recently reported. And yet, political movements are not geological formations. Facing internal political pressures and the hard fact of Israel's strength, Hamas has changed significantly. It has moved, as Klein has written, "from fundamentalism to radicalism." How much further it can move is an open question, but judging it by its charter alone is a mistake.

So is treating Hamas as part of global jihad, an error of current American policy. Reuven Paz, head of the Project for the Research of Islamist Movements (PRISM), says that al-Qaeda harbors "the deepest hatred" for Hamas, which it sees as representing "nationalist jihad" instead of "Islamic jihad." Hamas, says Paz, resents American support for Israel but is not anti-American as such. For President Bush, Paz suggests, Islamic groups are "all the same axis of evil." That's a misreading of Middle East dynamics – much like John McCain's persistent confusion of Al-Qaeda and Shi'ite extremists.

Clearly, the policies of Israel, the United States and Fatah toward Hamas over the last several years have failed to marginalize the group. In 2005, Israel pulled out of Gaza unilaterally, avoiding any negotiations with Abbas on a final-status agreement. Among Palestinians, that served as proof that Hamas' armed struggle had driven Israel out. In the run-up to the January 2006 elections, says Rabbani, Abbas initially favored Hamas participation. Klein argues that the goal of Abbas, Bush, and Israel “was to kick Hamas out of politics," through electoral defeat. By the time Abbas realized the danger of Hamas victory and got cold feet, says Rabbani, the Bush administration “was not prepared to be seen as changing course on democratic elections.” Buoyed by Fatah's corruption and internal divisions, Hamas won.

As detailed in a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London last year, and more recently in a Vanity Fair investigative article, the United States did not just join in boycotting the Hamas government and the unity government that followed. It armed the PA's Presidential Guard, which was independent of the Hamas government, and pushed Arab countries to help train it. By June 2007, Hamas expected a Fatah coup with American backing -- and preempted by seizing control of Gaza.

Abbas' response -- putting together a Hamas-free government in the West Bank -- made him a partner acceptable to Israel and the United States, opening the way to the Annapolis process. But unless there is backroom progress that has been successfully hidden, the talks appear to be going nowhere. Even if they produced a surprise deal, Hamas and Gaza would be left out. With no visible diplomatic progress, with Israeli settlement construction continuing, Abbas and Fatah continue to lose popularity. The latest poll by Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki shows a dramatic tilt in support among Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank toward Hamas.

Meanwhile, Hamas rules Gaza and is growing stronger militarily The Israeli siege has not hurt popular support for the Hamas regime in Gaza. The greatest irony is that Israel is conducting indirect negotiations with Hamas, via Egypt, on a prisoner exchange and on a ceasefire. Any deal would again affirm Hamas' strength and appear to undermine Abbas. Rather than eliminating Hamas, the U.S.-Israel-Fatah alliance finds itself stalemated at every turn.

Under those circumstances, it's worth considering the one option rejected so far: U.S. and Israeli support for restoring a Palestinian unity government. Rabbani suggests that Hamas would find reason to reject any peace deal with Israel that Abbas reached without it -- but would be more flexible if it were sharing power. One way to push Hamas to moderate its positions might be to co-opt it into the political process. Meshaal's interview could mean that he's offering to be co-opted. It's worth finding out.

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