What Makes Hamas Different Than the PLO?

Perceptive Goldblog reader Joe Kanter asks:

By claiming Hamas is not now, nor will ever practically be, a partner for peace, one makes the implied argument that there is something inherently different from Hamas now and the PLO of years past.  From my reading of history, I see many similarities in both the rhetoric of Hamas-now and PLO-then, as well as in the arguments made against engaging/trusting Hamas-now and PLO-then.  Do you draw some distinction here between the two groups which I'm not seeing?  It seems that, while a great deal is left to be desired, the transformation of the PLO from resistance fighters to negotiating partners has, at the very least, proven much of the critics-then wrong. 

A good question. Here's a provisional answer; I reserve the right to change my mind, or add thoughts later. It's true that many people look fondly back on the PLO days as a time when the Middle East conflict was mainly about real estate, rather than about Allah's demands, and HaShem's competing demands. I do, too. I remember Akram Haniyeh, then one of Arafat's top aides, telling me in 2001 or so that Israel should make the best deal it could with Fatah, because with Hamas there could be no compromise, and Hamas is most certainly coming.

But Kanter has a somewhat gauzy memory of the "transformation" of the PLO from resistance fighters to negotiating partners. For one thing, the "negotiating partners" failed to negotiate successfully. This was largely Arafat's fault, and Arafat's limitations were a byproduct of his mystical, Islamist side. Arafat was actually quite influenced by Muslim Brotherhood ideology, and I think this is a key reason why he would not allow himself to become the Muslim leader who acceded to Jewish control of even part of Jerusalem.

Today, the situation is somewhat different. The most important moderate Palestinian player, Salam Fayad, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, is an unusual character -- he is the first Palestinian leader, I think, who genuinely worries after the quotidian concerns of his people. He seems especially moderate and pragmatic when compared to the men who run Gaza, of course. I'm not suggesting that the PLO didn't contain elements of pragmatism all along (though I tend to think that even in the pragmatic circles there flourished the never-ending dream of "stages," taking Israel apart slowly, piece by piece).

I would never predict that certain leaders of Hamas couldn't evolve and leave the organization to form new, more pragmatic organizations. And I would not say that there are no differences among Hamas leaders; much of the Gaza leadership is tactically more pragmatic than the Damascus leaders. But I believe that jihadist organizations are jihadist at their core, and that it is theologically impossible for Hamas to change. The PLO was never bound by these strictures. I think the more relevant question might be: Will Israel wind up negotiating with Hamas, as it once negotiated with the PLO? This, of course, is a possibility. By the nature of Hamas, of course, I don't see much success for that route, either.