Hamas Prime Minister-designate Ismail Haniyeh has called for talks with the Quartet, claims that his government "won't spare any effort to reach a just peace in the region," and asserts that "we're not warmongers and we don't call for terrorism and bloodshed." Some newspapers have reported breathlessly that Haniyeh has pledged to accept the agreements signed by the PLO with Israel.
Is Hamas turning over a new leaf? A quick glance at the fine print, not to mention what is happening on the ground, indicates not.
On previous agreements, all Haniyeh said when presenting his government to the Palestinian Legislative Council on Monday was that he would handle the matter in a "responsible" manner, which is hardly a marked change from his original position, namely that Hamas would only honor agreements it deemed consistent with its own principles. As to Hamas's idea of "peace," the same speech emphasized "the right of our people to defend itself against occupation and to struggle against the settlements and the fence and to establish an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital" and the duty to pursue the "right of return without compromise."
Hamas, in other words, remains Hamas. It has not retreated from its objective of destroying Israel one iota, nor has it begun to comply with the international requirements to end terrorism, accept Israel and accept previous agreements.
Even Fatah remains unimpressed with any supposed change in Hamas, and all its delegates voted against Haniyeh's government when the Hamas-dominated PLC approved it, 71-36, yesterday.
Hamas does, at least, make clear the motives behind its softening not of substance but of tone: "My government will establish good and strong relations with the world," said Haniyeh. "We are interested in having solid relations with the European Union."
In other words, for all Hamas's previous bravado about not caring about Western financial assistance and its claims that the PA will do without or find support elsewhere, Haniyeh would very much like to avoid becoming an international pariah. Haniyeh's slight rhetorical shift, then, can be seen as an effort to induce someone - Israel, the US, or the EU - to break Hamas's isolation and agree to talk.
The US is to be commended for seeing through this and refusing to accept Hamas's bid for talks with the Quartet before Hamas has accepted the Quartet's conditions. Even Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, on March 20 expressed his "disappointment" that Hamas had not fulfilled the Quartet's conditions and stated that Hamas "is not reasonable. If it were, other parties would have joined them" in government.
Evidently, Hamas is testing the waters, looking for the minimum it needs to compromise to retain the PA's direct financial lifeline. We can expect, therefore, more gestures along these lines, possibly including vague acceptance of the Saudi plan, or some deal with Fatah that provides Hamas with more cover.
It is important, in this context, to differentiate between cosmetics and content. The reality on the ground is that the number of attempted terrorist attacks has been growing since disengagement and since Hamas's elections victory. In the last half year, the IDF reports it has killed over 80 active terrorists, about 40 bombs have been placed along the Gaza fence, and there have been dozens of Kassam attacks. Just last week, six Palestinians were caught smuggling weapons and two Palestinian suicide bombers were intercepted - one who had already reached the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway.
This is the sort of "struggle" Haniyeh defended in his speech. If a Hamas government wants to be recognized, it must not only distance itself from terrorism, as Fatah did, but actually give up its own "right" to attack Israelis at will and physically prevent all other Palestinian groups from doing so.
If the international community is serious about pursuing peace, it must stick to its demands even if this means waiting for a long time either for Hamas to transform itself or be removed from office. The task - convincing Palestinians to abandon the dream of destroying Israel, either through terrorism or by flooding Israel with "refugees exercising their right of return" - may be daunting. But with sufficient patience and determination it may be accomplished.
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