Is Hamas Ready to Deal?
By SCOTT ATRAN
WHATEVER the endgame between Israel, Hezbollah and Hamas, one thing is
certain: Israel’s hopes of ensuring its security by walling itself off
from resentful neighbors are dead. One lesson from Israel’s assault on
Lebanon and its military operation in Gaza is that the missiles blow back.
We can hope that multinational cooperation will help to secure Israel’s
border with Lebanon. But what about the Palestinian issue, which has
been seemingly pushed to the back burner by the war in Lebanon?
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
Many Israelis consider the rescue of a soldier a “sacred value,” worth
almost any cost, including military action leading to other Israeli
soldiers dying. But the Israeli offensive also had a larger strategic
goal: to destroy whatever potential the Hamas government had to prevent
Israel from unilaterally redrawing its boundaries to include some West
Bank settlements. Doing so was something that Israel had intended as
soon as it could convince the United States that with Hamas having
defeated Fatah at the polls, there was no legitimate Palestinian partner
to negotiate with.
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.
As a senior adviser to President Abbas told me of Mr. Meshal: “He has
tried to undermine the Haniya government’s authority by presenting
himself as Hamas’s true decision maker, and he will not be remembered as
the person who legitimized Israel and sacrificed sacred land.”
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
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.”
Although Prime Minister Haniya has more popular support, Mr. Meshal
controls the militias and the money. If financing — perhaps from
moderate Arab states — could be channeled to Mr. Haniya’s government for
social services like salaries, fuel, food, building repairs, garbage
collection and so forth, then Mr. Meshal’s (mostly Iranian) bankroll
would be less of a factor, and popular pressure could help rein in
Hamas’s military wing.
Prime Minister Haniya’s position comes down to this: “We need you, as
you need us.” For the United States and Europe, the stakes are also
high. Mr. Haniya wants Americans and Europeans to recognize that the
region has welcomed Hamas’s election to power as a genuine exercise in
If America were to engage his government, he believes, it would be the
West’s best opportunity to reverse its steep decline in the esteem of
Arabs and Muslims everywhere. “We need a dialogue of civilizations,” he
said, “not a clash of civilizations.”
A survey by the Pew Center’s Global Attitudes Project released in June
found that Muslim opinions about the West had worsened drastically over
the past year.
This month President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, the world’s
most populous Muslim country, warned that continued Middle East
hostilities involving Israel “will radicalize the Muslim world, even
those of us who are moderate today. From there, it will be just one step
away to that ultimate nightmare: a clash of civilizations.”
But Khurshid Ahmad, a senator in Pakistan and leader of Jamaat-e-Islami,
one of the world’s oldest and most important Islamist movements,
recently told me that if Hamas accepted a two-state solution, “with both
Palestine and Israel having full economic, political and military
sovereignty over their pre-1967 territories, and with Palestinians
allowed into Palestine and Jews into Israel, then I would recommend this
solution to the entire Muslim community.”
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.”
As the Pew survey made clear, the Israel-Palestinian issue has become
the principal fault line in world conflict. There would be some sad
satisfaction if the bloodshed in Gaza and at the Lebanon border served
as a starting point for bringing the larger conflict to an end.
Scott Atran is a research scientist at the National Center for
Scientific Research in Paris, the University of Michigan and the John
Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.