Pragmatic fanatics

Why Hamas endorsed a relatively moderate election platform.

hamas campaign 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
hamas campaign 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
In recent weeks, Hamas has begun employing a double-talk strategy ahead of Wednesday's parliamentary election in the Palestinian Authority. On the one hand, Dr. Mahmoud Zahar, who occupies the ninth slot on the Hamas list, has declared that his movement will not cooperate with Israel in any field and that Izzaddin al-Kassam, the armed wing of Hamas, will be strengthened after the vote. On the other hand, Hamas candidate Dr. Mahmoud al-Rumahi announced that his movement was prepared to conduct negotiations with Israel about running day-to-day Palestinian affairs. Public statements by some of Hamas leaders, particularly those lately attributed to Sheikh Mohammed Abu Tair, the movement's top activist in east Jerusalem, are designed to send a message of political pragmatism in a bid to attract more support from Palestinian voters fed up with the ruling Fatah Party because of its leaders' growing involvement in corruption. Moreover, many Palestinians are seeking a more moderate and clean political alternative that will rid them of their economic predicament and end Israeli control of the West Bank. THE RESIDENTS of the Palestinian territories want a peaceful solution based on the idea of two states, one in which east Jerusalem would become the capital of the Palestinian state. Hamas has comprehended that its public endorsement of its charter, which calls for the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic state on all Palestine "from the sea to the river," will harm the image of the Palestinians in the eyes of the world once it wins the vote. The international community fears the establishment of another fundamentalist state in the Middle East at a time when it is busy dealing with Iran's attempts to develop nuclear weapons. Accordingly, Hamas has endorsed an election platform that intricately blurs the extremist articles that appear in its charter. The platform of Hamas's Reform and Change List talks about ending the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, the right of return of the refugees to their lands and properties, and halting security coordination with Israel. It does not clearly define the size of the Palestinian state "from the sea to the river." The question, then, is whether there is any real change in Hamas's policy on the eve of the election. A comprehensive study I conducted shows that the major change in Hamas's strategy is its readiness to participate, for the first time, in Palestinian political life on the basis of the rules of the game set by the Palestinian Authority, namely, parliamentary elections. Hamas, which made a strong showing in recent municipal elections, refrained from participating in the Palestinian Authority's presidential election last January. Hamas wants a large share of the cake in the Palestinian Authority. But the Islamic movement does not want to head the authority because that would require it to negotiate with Israel on the basis of existing agreements between the two parties. Hamas is emphasizing that its participation in the election is not on the basis of the Oslo Accords, which it totally rejects, but rather based on the understandings reached in Cairo last year between various Palestinian factions regarding the period of calm, or tahdiyah. In fact, Hamas is evading a religious decree or fatwa issued in 1995 by Sheikh Hamed Bitawi prohibiting participation in parliamentary elections. HAMAS WANTS to achieve a strong political base that will allow it to influence the day-to-day affairs of the Palestinians, draft its own laws and prevent concessions to Israel by the Palestinian post-election government. In fact, Hamas is endorsing the same tactic of phases employed by the PLO many years ago. Senior Hamas leaders have openly confirmed that their movement's tactic is based on the same principles the PLO had to scrap from its charter after the signing of the Oslo Accords: The land of Palestine is Muslim Wakf property, and it is forbidden to give up any part of it. The land of Palestine stretches from the "sea to the river" and Israel has no right to exist as a state. These leaders explain that in light of international and regional changes, Hamas has had to adopt the "phased solution" strategy. The founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, endorsed this policy in the 1990s, when he announced that his movement was prepared to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders in return for a long-term and unlimited hudna [temporary cease-fire], leaving it up to future generations to try to resolve the conflict. Hamas representatives say they detect a process of ongoing erosion of the Zionist movement and American power in the Middle East. They believe Israel will eventually succumb in the face of the continued armed struggle. While this could take some time, it is not beyond reach. ISRAEL WILL soon have to outline its policy vis-a-vis Hamas. Whether the election results show a landslide victory for the movement, or even a strong representation in the Palestinian parliament, Hamas's power can't be ignored. Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin warned during a recent session of the Knesset's Security and Foreign Affairs Committee that Israel would be in "big trouble" if Hamas won or made a strong showing. The security establishment's major fear is that Hamas will infiltrate the Palestinian security forces and prevent them from foiling terror attacks, that it will take control of government institutions and increase its influence on all walks of Palestinian life, including the contents of textbooks in the education system. Nevertheless, there are certain voices in Israel who don't rule out the possibility of talking to Hamas once it ceases to be a terror organization. One of them is Shimon Peres, who argues that "if a tiger turns into a cat, then it's a cat and no longer a tiger." IN MY view, those who believe that the democratic process in Palestinian society could have a moderating effect on Hamas and neutralize the calls for the continuation of the armed struggle against Israel are mistaken. Hamas is seeking to copy the Lebanon model; its leaders are openly saying that they see Hizbullah as their example. Hizbullah has representatives in the Lebanese parliament, but the organization holds on to its military wing and continues to carry out attacks against Israel. Hamas's "moderation" is designed only to serve the movement's interests ahead of the election. Hamas can't abandon its radical religious ideology and the path of terror. The Israeli public is tired of the violence imposed on it by the Palestinians during the intifada. The Palestinians, likewise, are exhausted. But Hamas is not tired; it has only changed its tactics. Notwithstanding the results of the election this week, Israel should embark immediately on a diplomatic offensive to reveal the true face of Hamas to the world. Israel has made a significant achievement on the international arena in recent years by persuading many governments to include Hamas in the list of terror organizations. Israel should therefore not hold negotiations with official representatives of Hamas but demand instead that Hamas publicly cancel its charter, the same way Israel insisted on amendments in the PLO Charter. For this, Israel needs to gain the backing of the US and the Quartet. Israel should never give up its demand for the disarming of Hamas. It needs to be the first request reiterated to Mahmoud Abbas after the election as a prerequisite for resuming final-status talks. Finally, Israel should make every possible effort to strengthen the Palestinian Authority in general, and Abu Mazen in particular. Both Israelis and Palestinians will face a new and dangerous reality after the election - one where Abu Mazen will emerge as Israel's only rational partner. That's why Israel should look after him. The writer is the director-general of Israel Radio and an expert on Palestinian affairs.