Create your own Hamas

The Guardian-08/04/2006

The phenomenon of a small ideological political movement adapting itself to the demands of the international system out of a sense of necessity is one well known to students of international politics. Typically, a sense of concern for the practical needs of the people it claims to serve, a desire for international legitimacy, or perhaps simply a sense of exhaustion and no alternative might lead such a movement to adapt or renounce its wilder claims.

The reverse phenomenon – of parts of the international system adapting themselves to the demands of a small ideological movement, on the other hand, is less well known, and is hence worthy of attention when it seems to be happening. It is particularly noteworthy when the small movement in question adheres to a set of claims in direct contradiction to international norms. Such is the case with the current desperate attempt by some quarters in the west to pretend that the Hamas administration in the Palestinian Authority is undergoing a process of moderation.

Observe: last Tuesday, a story began to do the rounds depicting what looked like a breakthrough in Hamas’s attitude toward Israel. Previously, the Palestinian Islamist movement had appeared to adhere staunchly to its programme of working for the destruction of Israel. But it seemed now that conciliatory remarks had been made by Mahmoud al-Zahar, foreign minister in the PA administration formed by Hamas. The remarks, we were told, had been made by Zahar in a letter to the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan. According to the reports, Zahar bemoaned Israel’s construction of the security barrier in the letter. The barrier, Zahar’s letter opines, will “ultimately diminish any hopes for the achievement of security and peace based on a two-state solution”. Significant words indeed – implying, as they undoubtedly do, that Hamas itself favours a two-state solution of some kind or another. This would represent a major step forward for the movement. The story was duly picked up and reported in a number of international news outlets.

On Wednesday, however, an important source questioned the truth of the statement. The source was Mahmoud Zahar’s office itself, which indignantly denied that the letter sent by Zahar to the UN secretary general had contained any such sentence. The source for the claim of growing moderation turned out to be the PLO’s Fatah-controlled UN delegation, which had made its own unofficial “translation” of the letter, into which the un-Hamas-like sentiments found their way. Zahar’s office later claimed that the unofficial translation was based on an earlier draft of the letter, sent by mistake and that the updated version, with the concessionary statement firmly absent, was the authoritative letter. Perhaps an honest mix-up in translations and drafts took place. Or it might be suspected that some members of the PLO’s UN delegation might find it beneficial to create an impression of Hamas moderation where none actually exists. In any case, one or another version of the letter – no one seems quite sure which – is now being “studied” by UN officials.

Second attempt: In an interview with the Times newspaper on Friday, the same Dr Mahmoud al-Zahar was questioned once again regarding his attitudes to the same “two-state solution”. Rather unconvincingly, Zahar claimed initially not to understand the meaning of the term. The interviewer persisted, attempting to pin the elusive PA foreign minister down. Zahar then said that there would be a need to “consult with the people” on the matter. It was clear by this point that Zahar was wriggling, seeking to avoid saying anything very much, since to state openly Hamas’s well known policy of open rejection of all “diplomatic solutions” – clearly outlined in its charter – might sit ill with the movement’s keen desire to keep the flow of EU taxpayers’ money coming. The dogged Times interviewer kept at it, returning to the question no less than four times in what began to look like a more and more desperate attempt to squeeze a little drop of two-stateness out of Zahar.

Finally, in response to the near-pleading tone of the interviewer, the Hamas man conceded that after such issues as the right of return were discussed and accepted, the people consulted, the institutions consulted, Israeli “attacks” stopped, and the overall connection of the Muslim world to the issue taken into account, then “a genuine understanding” might be possible. Mission accomplished. The headline of the article analysing the interview was: “Hamas hints it may be ready to talk about a two-state solution.”

Why are critical faculties being suspended in this way?

The election of the extremist Hamas is the latest strategic disaster to befall the Palestinians. For as long as individuals like Zahar are in control, the chances of a return to meaningful negotiations are zero. This is a bitter and troubling message to accept. So one solution is simply not to accept it, and try to create your own Mahmoud al-Zahar, who is a hardliner in the process of moderating, and who drops regular “hints” to this effect. The trouble is that this imaginary Zahar is likely to be the subject of indignant vilification and rejection by the real Mahmoud al-Zahar, who is a Hamas man unwaveringly committed to his movement’s ideology. The result, as seen in the examples quoted above, is a unique and subtle blend of tragedy and farce.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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