Hardline Pragmatists

I was pleased when, several weeks ago, Larry Cohler-Esses called me and asked my advice about his Cairo interview with Hamas leader Dr. Mousa Abu Marzook.

I told him that, over the six years that I have been dealing with Hamas, I’ve learned that, contrary to what I’d been taught, Hamas is first and foremost a Palestinian national movement, and only secondly an Islamic religious movement. Were they first a religious movement guided by the word of God, change and reform would be nearly impossible.

But since Hamas is a political national Palestinian movement, change is inevitable and is in fact taking place. Hamas is not a replacement for the PLO, which is a partner for peace with Israel. But Hamas is part of the Palestinian people and must be dealt with politically. Israel and the West can and will have a deep impact on Hamas—the more we engage them, the more pragmatic they will become.

I cautioned Larry that on many of the issues of concern the rhetoric would remain the same as we all know and with that a large part of the ideology. Hamas will not at this point, or at any point in the immediate foreseeable future, recognize Israel or agree to make peace with Israel. This should not come as a surprise. Instead I suggested that Hamas was in the process of determining to what extent it could verbalize an implicit acknowledgement of the three Quartet conditions (recognizing Israel, adhering to agreements signed between Israel and the PLO, and renouncing terrorism).

If people like Khaled Mashal (who, in a 2010 television interview, for instance, said: “If Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders, so that will be the end of the Palestinian resistance.”) are paving a new course for the movement, then acceptance of the 1967 borders for the Palestinian state, trying to join the PLO, and launching a strategy of non-violent popular resistance are in fact implicit recognition of the Quartet conditions. This would indicate real change.

While falling short of what the international community should demand, this change ought to be noticed; strategies should be developed to encourage additional reforms. In this light, I believe that it is much more important to watch what Hamas does than what it says. Verbal reforms at this point are much less significant than behavioral ones.

The “democratic” processes that Hamas is going through now also indicate real reform; they are a direct result of the Arab spring. Khaled Mashal’s decision to announce that he is stepping down as head of the Hamas politburo, I know from direct knowledge, was a response to the falling of Ben Ali, Mubarak and Qaddafi. Even if he ends up being re-elected, he, as a leader, was being responsive to public sentiment, which is significant, given the nature of movements like Hamas. The “elections” for a new Shura Council – the supreme decision making body of Hamas—is also a response to the need to be more accountable.

Hamas has not fully adopted democratic principles of transparency and open elections. The process of elections is quite opaque and secretive. They will apparently elect 51 members to the Shura Council—17 from Gaza, 17 from the West Bank and 17 from outside. It is not clear to outsiders who votes or how. There is no formal registration of candidates and no campaigning. I am not 100% sure that the results will be announced and publicized. But Hamas does have a decision making process. They strive to measure the pulse of their people and to be responsive to their needs.

In being responsive there are also great discrepancies between stated policies and high verbiage – a case in point is the statements regarding kidnapping Israeli soldiers. Hamas declarations of massive victory following the Shalit prisoner exchange and the grand ceremonies held to welcome the prisoners home and continued speeches by most Hamas leaders regarding the plans to continue to abduct Israeli soldiers do not relate to any real policy decision to take action. In fact from internal discussions within the leadership there is a high level of awareness of the extremely high price that Gaza paid for five years of holding onto Shalit – more than 3000 dead and a decimated economy. In reality, for the time being there is no policy to abduct more soldiers or Israeli civilians – if they wanted to, they could probably do it almost every day.

When Abu Marzook responded in the interview about the Hamas charter and the need to change it, I mentioned to Larry that almost no person I know in Hamas has ever heard of the Charter. Certainly very few have ever read it—including leaders. More Israelis know the Hamas charter than Palestinians. The same was true of the PLO Charter, which was eventually revoked (but never amended). The Hamas charter is a horrible anti-Semitic document. Its references to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are not surprising, because a majority of people all over the Middle East believe, to this day, that the Protocals are a real factual document. Egyptian and Tukish televisions series about it continue to be hits throughout the Arab and Islamic world. Larry told me that Abu Marzook was honestly surprised when he was told that the Protocols are a well documented fabrication. He asked Larry to send him information about that.

My political discussions with Hamas people often remind me of similar conversations I had with PLO people more than 30 years ago. Hamas people do not know Jews (or Israelis). They have not had the experiences of their comrades from Fatah who, even before coming to support two states, had the experience of working in Israel, meeting Israelis, learning Hebrew, gaining insight into Israeli society and politics. Hamas people have only encountered Israelis inside prisons.

For some, this has been a factor in the development of more pragmatic positions. The most pragmatic people I know in Hamas are those who have had more interaction with Israelis. Like the leadership of the first intifada, who then went on to head the important positions in the Palestinian Authority in the period after Oslo, the more they spoke Hebrew, the more pragmatic they were. Hamas people have not had this opportunity and experience. Their process of change and reform is much slower as a result.

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There are people in Hamas who are pulling in the opposite direction as well. It is not a battle of the insiders against the outsiders. It is not so easy to identify the reformers and the more conservative elements who want to pull Hamas towards the Taliban rather than the West. But it does seem to me (and to others who have a lot of contact with Hamas) that the majority within the leadership is yearning for legitimacy and recognition of the West and this means reform, transparency, democracy and eventually accepting Israel—first as a reality and much later as a friendly neighbor.

Israel should respond by beginning to try to normalize economic life in Gaza, reconnecting its economy with the West Bank and with the rest of the world (while maintaining the blockade against the importation of military goods and weapons). Israel should seek to reach long-term ceasefire arrangements through the acceptable third party interlocutor (most likely Egypt).

At the same time, Israel must negotiate a real peace deal with the PLO on the “two states for two peoples” formula. The agreement must state that Gaza will be part of the future Palestinian state, but it will be implemented in Gaza only when the regime there accepts the terms of the agreement. If it is a real, genuine agreement which is implementable, in the spirit of the Arab revolts, the Hamas regime in Gaza will either make much more rapid changes and reforms or the people of Gaza will send them packing.