Monday, April 21, 2008

The Never Ending Story

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri might or should be looking for a new job. The day after he blasted the idea that Palestinians vote in a referendum on any peace deal, ex-President Carter, in Jerusalem, and Hamas executive committee head Khalad Meschaal, in Damascus, said that Hamas leadership would agree to such a step. Carter was reporting on his conversations in Damascus with Hamas leaders. When asked on NPR radio about the spoke person's statement, Carter replied he did not know who Abu Zuhri was, but that he had been talking to the top Hamas leaders, including some from Gaza and they had taken time to give him a carefully worded answer. Meschaal's remarks were murkier. He said Hamas was ready to give truce to an Israeli state within the 1967 borders, that also permitted the Palestinians a right of return. These are three non-starters for Israel. On the other hand, Meschaal said that "Hamas would respect the Palestian people desire [regarding an accord with Israel], even if it contradicted [Hamas's] tenets."

Carter's remarks highlighted other ambiguities in Hamas's positions and his own role. He reported the Hamas leaders wanted direct negotiations with Israel over the exchange of the Israeli prisoner in Gaza for Hamas and Fatah prisoners in Israel, but they rejected any stop in firing rockets at Israel from Gaza. Asked about his own role as an intermediary, Carter emphasized that he was acting as a private citizen, but denied that the US State Department, despite its public statements on his trip, had discouraged him from talking to Hamas leaders. He suggested that the State Department might want to maintain a public image of no contact with Hamas, while attending to less public interactions.

That would be diplomatically sensible. Unfortunately, the State Department like other parts of the Bush administration does not do nuance. Assistant department spokesman Tom Casey proclaimed at the beginning of his office's daily press briefing there was nothing new in Carter's and Meschaal's statements. Hamas still refuses to recognize Israel, it is a terrorist organization, etc. When asked about Carter's claim that he was not advised against speaking to Hamas, Casey in effect called Carter a liar.

Amidst the talking, Hamas gunmen mounted several attacks against Israel units at the border crossings from Israel to the Gaza Strip. The soldiers repulsed these attacks, killing several of the gunmen. Subsequent Israel air strikes killed several more Hamas militants, leaving, as usual, a very lopsided body count in Israel's favor, even when the inevitable civilian casualties are not counted. Yet a Hamas spokesman -- not Sami, this time -- described the recent attacks were just rehearsals for larger. Such encounters and promises will likely further reduce the supplies that Israel allows into Gaza for humanitarian purposes. Because of Passover and the attacks, it is now a trickle.

In this context, does it matter that Hamas leaders might have inched a bit toward acceptance of Israel and readiness to negotiated? Is the refusal of the US and Israel to consider that possibility disappointing? Yes to both questions. Hamas is an ideological organization with little proven skills in pragmatic politics. The support it receives from Muslims abroad and followers within appears based on maintaining ideological purity, as well as holding the Gaza Palestinians willing hostages. Therefore Hamas leaders in changing their political program risk internal opposition and loss of financial support. If they want to change their tune they must do it incrementally, slowly, ambiguously. That does not mean that Meschaal's current rhetoric actually indicates change, but the blunt rejection of his words does not help. Instead demands for clarification and seeking other opportunities to get their focus on the "peace process" would be more constructive.


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