Posted by: sean | August 17, 2006

Is Hamas ready to deal?

When I was in Ramallah, a friend introduced me to his American/Palestinian cousin who works in the Palestinian Authority. She’s young and intelligent, grew up abroad and feels more comfortable in English than in Arabic. She had to move back in with her family, because she hasn’t been paid in months. She spoke to me about a plan to try to reshuffle the ministers, adding some members of Fatah, in order to appease the US so that their assets will be unfrozen. (The only people who changed with Hamas’s success in the recent elections were the ministers, the other ministry workers, and in most cases even the deputy ministers, remained the same.)

A reasearcher from the CNRS in Paris asks whether this means that Hamas is ready to deal.

A bold gesture now by Israel would surprise its adversaries, convey strength, and even catch domestic political opposition off guard. And as strange as it may seem, were the United States able to help Israel help Hamas, it might turn the rising tide of global Muslim resentment.

Recent discussions I’ve had with Hamas leaders and their supporters around the globe indicate that Israel might just find a reasonable and influential bargaining partner.

Hamas’s top elected official, Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, now accepts that to stop his people’s suffering, his government must forsake its all-or-nothing call for Israel’s destruction. “We have no problem with a sovereign Palestinian state over all our lands within the 1967 borders, living in calm,” Mr. Haniya told me in his Gaza City office in late June, shortly before an Israeli missile destroyed it. “But we need the West as a partner to help us through.”

Mr. Haniya’s government had just agreed to a historic compromise with Fatah and its leader, President Mahmoud Abbas, forming a national coalition that implicitly accepts the coexistence alongside Israel. But this breakthrough was quickly overshadowed by Israel?s offensive into Gaza in retaliation for the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, by Palestinian militants, including members of Hamas?s military wing.

…Khaled Meshal, the Damascus-based head of the Hamas politburo, refused to release Corporal Shalit unless Israel freed hundreds of prisoners. While it is true that Israel has shown willingness to release hundreds of Palestinian detainees in return for a single Israeli in the past, Mr. Meshal’s stand might have been part of a larger political game.

…Prime Minster Haniya and many of Hamas’s other Sunni leaders are known to be uncomfortable with the loose coalition that Mr. Meshal has been forging with Shiite Iran and Hezbollah. Hasan Yusuf, a Hamas official held in Israel’s Ketziot prison, doesn’t think President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran’s declaration that the main solution to the Middle East crisis is for the elimination of the “Zionist regime” is practical or wise. “The outcome in Lebanon doesn’t change our view,” Mr. Yusuf informed me last weekend. “We believe in two states living side by side.”

He also said that “all Hamas factions have agreed to a unilateral cease-fire, including halting Qassam rockets; the movement is ready to go farther if it receives any encouraging responses from Israel and the West.”

But even moderate Hamas figures feel that as long as Israel, the United States and Europe boycott the elected government in Gaza and the West Bank, there is little choice but to accept whatever help comes along.

This is doubly unfortunate. While Mr. Meshal says Islam allows only a long-term truce with Israel, Hamas officials closer to Prime Minister Haniya believe that a formal peace deal is possible, especially if negotiations can begin out of the spotlight and proceed by degrees.

“You can’t expect us to take off all of our clothes at once,” one Hamas leader told me, “or we’ll be naked in the cold, like Arafat in his last years.” This official said that if Hamas moved too fast, it would alienate its base, but if his government continued to be isolated, the base would radicalize. “Either way, you could wind up with a bunch of little Al Qaedas.”

…Tangible results, like prisoner exchanges, are important. However, so are symbolic actions. Hamas officials have stressed the importance of Israel’s recognizing their suffering from the original loss of Palestinian land. And survey research of Palestinian refugees and Hamas by my colleagues and I, supported by the National Science Foundation, reliably finds that violent opposition to peace decreases if the adversary is seen to compromise its own moral position, even if the compromise has no material value.

“Israel freeing some of our prisoners will help us to stop others from attacking it,” said the Hamas government spokesman, Ghazi Hamad. “But Israel must apologize for our tragedy in 1948 before we can talk about negotiating over our right of return to historic Palestine.”

Talking and negotiating with Hamas, and Hizbollah and Damascus for that matter, would take a bold move on Israel’s part, which would most likely have to be preceded by a strong push from the US. Unfortunately, I think that what we can probably expect is more rhetoric about how one can’t talk to terrorists and how poor Israel would love to settle this conflict once and for all but just can’t find a partner in peace.

And if that’s the case, we can look forward to things not only not getting better, but getting dramatically worse in the region, and consequently, all over the world.

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