Is Hamas Becoming More Moderate?

The Palestinian group may be softening on key issues

The Palestinian group may be softening on key issues

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Senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh speaks to supporters in Tunis / Reuters

One of the most under-covered developments in the Israeli-Palestinian arena these days is the subtle moves by Hamas over the past few weeks that may indicate a softening of their positions on key issues -- particularly their public commitment to "popular resistance," as well as their agreement to enter the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a body that signed the Oslo Accords with Israel. The Carnegie Endowment's Nathan Brown tries to tie together these various developments in a new piece, offering an insightful and sober look into what we should make of these moves.

As Brown points out, the term "popular resistance" is quite nebulous and allows Hamas significant wiggle room:

Talk of popular resistance is hardly evidence that Hamas leaders have been reading Gandhi. First, Hamas leaders make clear that they still regard armed action as legitimate. And they have even suggested that the cease-fire does not mean an end to efforts to capture Israeli soldiers in order to force an exchange for Palestinian prisoners excluded from the last deal for Gilad Shalit. ...

Finally, popular resistance is not quite the same as nonviolence, though there is considerable overlap. When Palestinians speak of popular resistance they often do so to distinguish it from what they call the "militarization" of the second intifada. And sometimes they do so nostalgically to recall the first intifada, characterized by strikes, demonstrations, founding of grassroots organizations--and restricted largely to fairly low-level violence, like stone throwing. Popular resistance means involving the entire society in the effort rather than allowing a small number of hardened fighters to dominate the political field.

And that is a step that Hamas has now endorsed. It has broad resonance within a Palestinian society still traumatized and exhausted from the second intifada and with a broader Arab public still transfixed by the accomplishments of Tunisian and Egyptian crowds in facing down tyrants. ...

Hamas's embrace of popular resistance thus commits the movement to no permanent change in its organization or ideology but does allow it to tap into broader currents in Palestinian and Arab public opinion.

Hamas's willingness to join the PLO should similarly be interpreted as an ambiguous move at best:

By entering the PLO, is Hamas signaling its acceptance of the Oslo Accords and of Abbas's leadership? Not really. Both Hamas and its rivals have always agreed that in principle Hamas should be part of the PLO, though they generally have never come to terms with the practicalities of such a step. ...

9-11 Ten Years LaterPalestinian factions have agreed to construct an ad hoc body containing all factions to coordinate Palestinian affairs and make decisions jointly while they work together to build a reformed, inclusive PLO. ...  In the meantime--which could be a very long period indeed--the factions have agreed to only a formula for collective decisionmaking in which all prominent actors get a veto. And activating such structures does not demand acceptance of the Olso Accords or even of Abbas's authority--as Hamas made clear when it criticized Abbas's dutiful decision to show up for a Quartet-sponsored meeting with Israeli negotiators in Jordan in early January.

Thus, agreeing to join the PLO leaves enormous loopholes and does not commit Hamas to much of anything. Indeed, Hamas leaders have insisted that they have not accepted Oslo and will not accept the legitimacy of Israel.

Brown does, however, see some positive signs in the move:

Still, Hamas has allowed itself to be pointed in a clear direction of consensual decisionmaking. The movement's insistence that it will not recognize Israel has its own loopholes, since political parties and movements are not the relevant actors for international agreements or for recognizing states--a point often made in internal Palestinian discussions by those seeking to coax Hamas into the fold. Hamas need not abandon its principles, they say; it only has to accept the authority of Palestinian institutions that will sign the relevant agreements and take the necessary steps. No more is asked of Hamas in this regard than was asked of Fatah when Oslo was signed--the party did not immediately revise its documents to do reflect its support of the agreements with Israel when PLO leaders from the movement signed the accords. Neither was Likud for that matter required to change its platform from opposition to support for the agreements or to clarify the evasive statements of its leaders before running in post-Oslo elections.

Brown also picks up on the little-noticed decision of Hamas to form an official Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood:

First, it could lead to a shift of focus among Palestinian Islamists. Hamas's identity--indeed its very name--has stressed "resistance." But Brotherhood organizations portray themselves as comprehensive, with religious, personal, educational, social, charitable, and political dimensions.

Second, chains of command within the organization could shift--Khalid Mishal, for instance, might move from being the head of the political bureau of the organization to become the Palestinian Brotherhood's "general supervisor," a potentially more authoritative post. And third, the Palestinian Brotherhood might seek to not simply model the structure but also mimic the behavior of successful Islamist movements in North Africa, which have achieved great electoral success by emphasizing gradual political reform and soothing rhetoric.

The question on everyone's mind then is whether and how the US should encourage Hamas's greater engagement in the Palestinian system. The costs are substantial:

First, it would be difficult to carry on serious, conflict-ending diplomacy in a context in which Hamas was given a powerful voice. The basis for a two-state solution would not be totally removed. Hamas for its part has left the door slightly open by indicating its willingness to accept a state based on the 1967 lines. It has rejected the idea that it will recognize Israel, but, as suggested above, the relevant question is whether it would accept as binding a Palestinian decision to recognize Israel, not whether it would change its own ideology. And Israel similarly has sometimes shown a willingness to negotiate indirectly with Hamas.

But if two-state diplomacy would be theoretically possible, it would not be likely. Making decisions by consensus, as the Palestinians propose to do, is often a formula for paralysis. ...

9-11 Ten Years LaterA second cost would be entrenching Hamas. Since the Islamist electoral victory of 2006, the United States has led an international effort to sideline, oust, isolate, and defeat the movement. Accepting Palestinian reconciliation would amount to an admission of failure.

There are, however, certain advantages to an engaged Hamas:

Acknowledging that the "peace process" has reached a dead end in its current form and that Hamas is an unavoidable political player, however, should be viewed less as high costs to pay and more as a long-overdue recognition of hard political realities. The U.S. government does not have any enthusiasm or tools for addressing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at present. The potential payoff for Washington, then, is that this shift will automatically involve some conflict management; a Palestinian political system dominated by two movements that wish for now to avoid conflict with Israel may give the United States the respite it needs.

And the restoration of a structure for Palestinian decisionmaking, while unlikely to lead to any breakthrough in the short term, is a necessary condition for any viable diplomacy in the future.

The entire piece is well worth a read.