Stanley's blog

Hamas 2.0

I commend to you the article in Foreign Affairs of 5 August by Michael Bröning, in which he argues that the January war in Gaza overshadowed the fact that Hamas is in the midst of an unprecedented ideological transformation, and it’s time for the West to pay attention.

I have always been in favour of recognising the democratically elected government of the Palestinian territories, and dealing directly with Hamas ministers qua ministers. We continue to impose preconditions for meeting the ‘enemies’, notwithstanding that acceptance of such preconditions involves an unacceptable loss of face. And yet, we negotiated with the PLO years before they formally changed the anti-Israeli wording of its Charter.

Bröning argues that, rather than focusing on Hamas’ unbending symbolic positions, Western diplomats should acknowledge the organisation’s reduced aspirations and ideological softening, and rethink their approach. Rather than basing political judgments on largely outdated proclamations, they should study recent Hamas policies and the movement’s performance on the ground.

In response to statements from Obama and Netanyahu, the Hamas leader Khaled Mashal spoke in Damascus in June. He outlined a political agenda that starkly broke with the traditionally rigid rhetoric of confrontation: “At a minimum,” he said, “we demand the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital with full sovereignty within the 1967 borders, removing all checkpoints and achieving the right of return.”

Just before Mashal’s speech, Ismail Haniyeh, Gaza’s current prime minister, had called for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. The significance of this change in Hamas’ political stance becomes clear when compared to the uncompromising anti-Semitic language of the charter, which categorically calls for the liberation of all of “Palestine.”

Recognising Israel as a Jewish state at this time would not only damage Hamas’ public standing among Palestinians but also reduce its political leverage in future negotiations with Israel. In the words of Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar:

“[T]he PLO’s recognition of Israel [in 1993] was not reciprocated by an equivalent Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state or national rights. It was a dirty game, and we are not going to repeat it.”

Despite Barack Obama’s natural inclinations, the State Department rejected Mashal’s groundbreaking speech, stating:

“Nothing has changed in terms of Hamas’ basic views about Israel and about peace in the region.” Focusing on Hamas’ abstract ideological positions, he went on to say that “Hamas still believes in the destruction of the state of Israel and does not believe in Israel’s right to exist.”

It’s time for the EU and US to signal their acceptance of a Palestinian government that includes Hamas. “Such an approach would encourage Hamas to further reinvent itself and increase the chances for Palestinian reconciliation — opening up new negotiating opportunities for Western, Israeli, and Palestinian decision-makers. In the end, only talks without preconditions will resolve the current ideological stalemate and pave the way for a two-state solution and lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

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