Can Islamists Compromise With Israel?

Ever since Hamas won the Palestinian elections, the notion has been a widely reported in the U.S. media that negotiations between Israel and Hamas are inconceivable, since Hamas refuses to recognize the State of Israel. The U.S. has even gone so far as to trash its own democracy agenda in respect of the Palestinians and instead look to do everything in their power to turn Mahmoud Abbas into Yasser Arafat, a veritable monarch whose power trumped that of elected institutions, while it uses an economic blockade to try and starve the Palestinians into accepting this bizarre turnaround.

Not only is this policy short-sighted and likely to actually strengthen Hamas, it fails to recognize the opportunity offered by Hamas’s entry into mainstream electoral politics — an “opportunity” recognized by al-Qaeda’s leadership as a great danger, which was why Ayman Zawahiri devoted so much of his precious air time to castigating Hamas for its decision to enter the elections. (Hamas, for its part, told Zawahiri rather bluntly that the Palestinians had no need for his advice.)

And, of course, to anyone with a knowledge of the history of the Oslo process, the idea that you can’t talk to Palestinian groups who don’t formally recognize Israel is absurd: Mahmoud Abbas’s own Fatah organization didn’t recognize Israel, either, until Israel opened a dialogue and began a process of steps towards mutual recognition. Had they insisted that Fatah recognize Israel as a precondition for talking, there would have been no Oslo process. (Which would have been just fine with most of those who advocate this position, actually.)

The more sophisticated argument, however, notes that Fatah is a secular organization, and then argues that because of its religious character, Hamas can never reconcile itself to Israel’s existence because, to them, it will always represent an alien incursion into Dar ul-Islam (the House of Islam), i.e. the conquest of Muslim land.

While there may be textual arguments to support this view, my own sense is that the same textual arguments may support a conclusion that Islam can never recognize the Spanish state, built, as it was, on land that was once also part of Dar ul-Islam. Plainly, it’s not textual interpretation that governs the politics of the real world — my own sense is that it tends to follow it, textual “authority” rolled out and dusted off to justify positions adopted by various factions in the heat of politics.

Hamas, plainly, is a very pragmatic organization. What got it elected by the traditionally predominantly secular Palestinian voters wasn’t a new wave of piety; it was a sense that Hamas offered the possibility of good governance, ending corruption, the delivery of social services and a promise not to buckle to Israeli or American edict. And Hamas is plainly well aware of that.

So much so, in fact, that news reports now suggesting that Hamas has been forced into retreat by accepting the principle of a government led by technocrats rather than by its own members are forgetting that Hamas actually lobbied hard for Fatah to join it in government when it unexpectedly won the election.

Certainly, there are different currents within Hamas. Some doubted the wisdom of contesting the election and these more militant elements will claim vindication from the paralysis imposed on the government by the U.S. response. But there is plainly a strongly pragmatic element within the leadership, which seeks coexistence. Writing in the New York Times, Wedneday, Hamas’s Ahmad Youssef set out his organization’s offer of a ten-year truce or “hudna”, arguing that a comprehensive political solution to resolve the causes of the conflict is unattainable now, but that this does not preclude the pursuit of an effective peace by truce:

A truce is referred to in Arabic as a “hudna.” Typically covering 10 years, a hudna is recognized in Islamic jurisprudence as a legitimate and binding contract. A hudna extends beyond the Western concept of a cease-fire and obliges the parties to use the period to seek a permanent, nonviolent resolution to their differences. The Koran finds great merit in such efforts at promoting understanding among different people. Whereas war dehumanizes the enemy and makes it easier to kill, a hudna affords the opportunity to humanize one’s opponents and understand their position with the goal of resolving the intertribal or international dispute.

Such a concept — a period of nonwar but only partial resolution of a conflict — is foreign to the West and has been greeted with much suspicion. Many Westerners I speak to wonder how one can stop the violence without ending the conflict.

I would argue, however, that this concept is not as foreign as it might seem. After all, the Irish Republican Army agreed to halt its military struggle to free Northern Ireland from British rule without recognizing British sovereignty. Irish Republicans continue to aspire to a united Ireland free of British rule, but rely upon peaceful methods. Had the I.R.A. been forced to renounce its vision of reuniting Ireland before negotiations could occur, peace would never have prevailed. Why should more be demanded of the Palestinians, particularly when the spirit of our people will never permit it?

When Hamas gives its word to an international agreement, it does so in the name of God and will therefore keep its word. Hamas has honored its previous cease-fires, as Israelis grudgingly note with the oft-heard words, “At least with Hamas they mean what they say.”

Israelis might balk at Hamas’s terms and argue that they’re required to withdraw to the 1967 borders in exchange for a long-term cease-fire but not necessarily for peace beyond that, but they’re not even bothering to investigate the creative diplomatic possibilities offered by the Hamas position. Instead, they’re pursuing — with the active encouragement of the Bush Administration — an attempt to topple the government and instead promoting a Palestinian government fronted by Mahmoud Abbas, propped up by a collection of self-serving warlords. A Palestinian Karzai, you might say.

That strategy is doomed to fail, but what is particularly tragic is the stubborn refusal of the Israelis, and a wide range of people in Washington who really should know better, to countenance negotiation with the Islamists — either in Palestine, or elsewhere in the Arab world and also Iran and Afghanistan — on the grounds that their religious beliefs somehow preclude them from making rational political choices. This simply isn’t true, and it’s a self-serving myth propagated by hardliners.

The most successful and popular Islamist movements in the region — Hizballah, Hamas and some of the chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood — are largely nationalist in character, gathering support on the basis of their ability to address temporal concerns more effectively than their secular rivals, rather than being political expressions of their supporters’ religiosity. (One could argue, in fact, that the history of the region, in which the contemporary Arab nation states are, for the most part, creations of intra-European colonial bargaining and less than 100 years old, makes their common Islamic identity more deeply resonant than, say, their Jordanian-ness or Syrian-ness.)

Veils not compulsory: Hizballah supporters at a Beirut rally

Reporting from Hizballah’s stronghold in Beirut, the intrepid Israeli correspondent Nir Rosen observed the movement’s operations at close quarters and made the following observation:

I was struck by how the reality of Hizballah differed from its distorted image in the West. For although Hizb Allah, the Party of God, is undoubtedly of Shia origin, it is in fact a secular movement, addressing real temporal issues, its leaders speaking in a nationalist discourse, avoiding sectarianism and religious metaphors. They participate in politics, compromising and negotiating, and do not seek to impose Islamic law on others. Proof of this is readily available in Hizballah strongholds, where many of their followers are secular, supporting Hizballah because it represents their political interests and defends them.

Throughout the country, women in chadors walk beside scantily clad beauties.  Along Lebanon’s highways, or what is left of them, billboards celebrating Hizballah’s “divine victory” over Israel share advertising space with posters depicting half-naked women wearing jeans or lingerie. Hizballah may have preferences, but unlike the authoritarian leaders of the Taliban or Saudi Arabia, it does not impose them.

Nor has the movement shown a long-standing inability to reconcile with its enemies. Most strikingly, in 2000, after Israel’s withdrawal from the Lebanese territory it was occupying, the thousands of Shia and Christian collaborators suddenly found themselves vulnerable to retribution and street justice from understandably aggrieved Lebanese. On strict orders from Hizballah, however, the vast majority were not touched. Rather they were handed over to the Lebanese army, dealt with by the Lebanese government and imprisoned and amnestied prematurely, in a move that offended many Lebanese. Nevertheless, today they can be spotted in towns in the south; everyone knows who they are, and they remain unharmed. Hardly the actions of a violent fundamentalist terrorist organization.

Similarly, any close observer of Palestinian politics will tell you that if Hamas had to rely exclusively on the support of the religiously pious, it wouldn’t get beyond 20% of the vote — it ousted Fatah because Palestinian voters, most of them more secular   than religious, saw Hamas as a more effective steward of their national interests, and as infinitely more selfless, honest and incorruptible than their Fatah rivals.

French analyst Olivier Roy who has tracked the Islamist phenomenon for decades concurs with a view that the impulse driving the most important Islamists movements today is largely a nationalist one. He writes:

Thus, to achieve more than 20% a party must appeal to a larger audience. The extra supporters are voting not for Islam but for good governance, including the fight against corruption. This is true too of Hamas, which Palestinians elected because they considered, rightly or wrongly, that Hamas would make a better government than Fatah. It’s clear that this is now the general pattern.

He emphasizes a point often made by Rami Khouri, that the struggle for democracy in the Middle East from the ground up is predominantly waged by Islamists, who stand to be its biggest beneficiaries, and that the support these parties now enjoy reflects the increasingly assertive refusal by ordinary Arabs to remain politically docile.

Roy notes that democratization will inevitably put the Islamists in government, and that the success of the democracy project is dependent on political legitimacy.

Political legitimacy in the wider region means, at least for the moment, two things: nationalism and religion. You cannot win by going against nationalistic and religious feelings. This is true in Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan – everywhere. The idea that democratisation will undermine nationalism in the middle east never made sense. Any nationalist movement today will protest against western encroachment and United States intervention.

Roy concludes that the only rational policy open to the West is to engage with the Islamists, a point elaborated on at length by Mark Perry and Alistair Crooke, founders of the Conflict Forum, whose extensive engagement with the likes of Hamas and Hizballah is summarised in their excellent series “How to Lose a War on Terror”. They found, in the course of leading a delegation of Western intelligence veterans at a conference with the Islamists in Beirut, that, in fact, the Islamists of Hamas, Hizballah and the Brotherhood are pragmatic politicians who seek engagement with the West on the basis of democratic principles. And they are out on a limb, to some extent, in the region, with their more extremist opponents warning them that the path of moderation, politics and diplomacy is bound to fail, because America will never accept the Islamists. Unfortunately, the U.S. and Israel may be creating a self-fulfilling prophesy that vindicates the argument of the extremists within the broad Islamist ranks.