Carter was Right But Bush, Media Ignore Hamas' Overtures Towards Peace

Here is some recent news from Israeli and Arab sources that you might have missed:

Haaretz reported that "Hamas' political leader Khaled Meshal said Hamas would accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip along Israel's pre-1967 borders, and would grant Israel a 10-year hudna, or truce, as an implicit proof of recognition if Israel withdraws from those areas."

According to Gulf News, "Former US president Jimmy Carter said that exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal had told him the movement would accept a peace deal if it was approved in a Palestinian vote. ... Hamas will accept a ceasefire that is limited to the Gaza Strip, dropping its long-standing demand that the West Bank be included in any halt in fighting with Israel, senior representatives of the group said."

Haaretz also noted that "the most significant change in Hamas' stance in the talks over a calm is that it gave up on its demand that the calm extend to both Gaza and the West Bank. This may lead to a breakthrough, but if Israel refuses this offer, Hamas will continue its policy of the past few weeks ¬ escalating the violence and rocket fire."

Israel did refuse this offer, in such a quiet low-key way that it seemed Israel simply ignored the it, along with other olive branches tentatively offered by Hamas in the wake of Jimmy Carter's talks with Hamas leaders. The U.S. government and our mainstream media did much the same (though the New York Times belatedly let Carter publish an op-ed column). What could have been heralded as a new opening toward peace in the Middle East has instead been expunged from the discourse, flushed down the memory hole into the oblivion of official nonexistence.

That's nothing new. For years, Hamas leaders have periodically offered truces and talked publicly of peace, negotiation, and compromise. Every time, they get the same kind of silent treatment -- for tactical, geopolitical, and ideological reasons.

On the tactical level, Israel and the U.S. want to isolate Hamas and treat it as a political nonentity, hoping that the Palestinian people will eventually, out of desperation, shift their political support to the more pliable Fatah regime of Mahmoud Abbas. It's a risky strategy because it could so easily backfire. If the Israel-Fatah peace talks end with no result -- as most experts now predict -- an unpredictable number of Palestinians will give up on Fatah and rally around Hamas.

But Israeli and U.S. leaders see no choice. They are committed to pursuing a peace agreement that will create a weak Palestinian state. Only Fatah offers even a chance of that outcome. Why a weak state? That leads to the geopolitical reason for ignoring Hamas' peace offerings.

If the U.S. or Israel were to respond publicly to Hamas moves, they would tacitly acknowledge that Hamas is a significant player in the game, that it does have some political power. "The world's only superpower" and its "most reliable ally" are determined to hide this truth at all costs. Being a superpower means keeping up the illusion that you have all the power, that you can do whatever you damn please. Of course the illusion has been punctured in the streets of Iraq and the hills of southern Lebanon. But that's all the more reason to try to keep it up everywhere else, especially in the resource-rich Middle East. To allow a Palestinian state with genuine political and economic power to exist would raise the specter of "instability" -- the foreign policy elite's code word for anything that compromises U.S. power and influence.

Moreover, U.S. and Israeli leaders have insisted on linking Hamas with all the other Islamist forces resisting their hegemony over the Middle East. To grant Hamas any semblance of power would create the impression that the Islamists as a whole were on the rise. So it seems imperative to disempower Hamas by any means necessary.

And ignoring people can be an even more persuasive display of power than shooting them. Shooting signals to the world that the victims matter, and that signal in itself makes the victims significant players in the power game. Ignoring them says to the world that the victims are irrelevant: No one needs to respond to, or even listen to, anything they say.

These well-known power considerations are bolstered by an ideologically loaded narrative about Hamas that is equally familiar.

Hamas is a party of murderous terrorists, the story goes. They want only to destroy Israel. So nothing Israel or the U.S. says or does can dissuade them from pursuing their deadly aim. There is no point in paying any attention to their empty words. They've offered truces so often before, always just buying time to build up strength for their next onslaught against poor, innocent Israel. The only reasonable thing to do is to keep inflicting more and more pain until they give up. The only language they understand is force.

This ideological litany, with all its many variants, does more than justify ignoring Hamas' conciliatory gestures. Beneath that obvious motive lies a more subtle but crucial argument. Hamas policies are never responses to Israel's policies, it says. Their perverse hatred wells up from some irrational source deep inside them that can never be quelled. So there is no hope of the two sides ever entering into any relationship other than all-out war. The disconnect is as permanent as it is total. Thus Hamas can never expect to be a player in the game of power relationships. And Hamas has chosen this isolation as its permanent stance. Israel and the U.S. bear no responsibility. We could not develop a relationship with such evildoers even if we wanted to.

It's a most satisfying story of guilt against innocence. If no policy changes that we "good guys" might make will ever affect those "bad guys," then obviously no policies of ours had anything to do with making "those bad guys" so bad in the first place; the guilty are just intrinsically evil. So the innocent can more easily see themselves as absolutely "good guys," innately pure and virtuous. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak illustrated this point glaringly when his own soldiers killed five children in Gaza. He absolved them of responsibility for those deaths and whatever future deaths Israel might inflict, saying, "We see Hamas as responsible for everything that happens there, for all deaths." For many who believe the narrative, this simplistic moral drama of good against evil may be the most important point of all.

Do the policymakers in Jerusalem and Washington believe it? We'll never know. But it certainly serves their power interests. And with their sensitive fingers always held up to the political winds, they know that many voters believe it, giving them another good reason to keep up the image of total separation from evil: "We don't talk to terrorists."

Or so they say. As Steve Masters, president of the Jewish-American peace group Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, recently noted, the Israeli rejection of Hamas overtures is merely a public show. "Despite their denials, the sides are without question engaging with each other."

But the show must go on. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice understands that perfectly well. So she insists that when Carter told Assistant Secretary of State C. David Welch of his plan to meet Hamas leaders, Welch "counseled President Carter against having contact with Hamas." Not so, Carter insists. Who should we believe, Jimmy or Condi?

When Welch himself recollected his words to Carter, they were ambiguous enough that Carter might well have taken them as a kind of "it's pointless, but go ahead" message. As one reporter suggested at a State Department press briefing, "it may be that David Welch is such an accomplished diplomat that even when he says no, it sounds like yes." Curiously, the Washington Post article reporting Welch's recollection was quickly disappeared from the Post's website. The ideological image of "no mutuality, no contact" must be preserved.

This same tragicomic show was played out twenty years ago, when Yassir Arafat announced his readiness to accept a two-state solution. Official Israel treated his words as meaningless and maintained its legal ban on direct talks with the PLO. Only years later did the world discover that the government imposing that ban was actually listening closely to Arafat. It would soon break its own law and secretly negotiate what would become the widely-heralded Oslo agreement.

Back then the policy of ignoring Palestinian peace efforts was justified by the ambiguity of Palestinian leaders' words. Now, too, those who cling to the ideological image of Hamas as evil "terrorists" point to the ambiguity of Khaled Mashaal's words as smoking-gun evidence of his devious cunning. For example, Mashaal says his group would not "recognize Israel," but it would offer a 10-year truce "as an implicit proof of recognition." If he won't forthrightly affirm Israel's right to exist, doesn't that prove Hamas really wants to destroy Israel?

Not necessarily. Carter's meeting with Mashaal showed that another interpretive frame is available. Carter treated Hamas leaders the way the Israelis treated PLO leaders at Oslo: not as demons but as ordinary politicians pursuing their own best interests. What they see as their best interests will change as circumstances change -- circumstances created by others, mainly the Israeli and U.S. governments. In other words, Hamas policies are intimately connected to the actions of the U.S. and Israel. Like it or not, these political forces are all tied together in what another courageous son of Georgia, Martin Luther King, called "a network of mutuality, a single garment of destiny."

Hamas may estimate its best interests incorrectly or pursue them ineffectively, sometimes with absolutely unacceptable violence. Most political parties do that with depressing regularity. Often the party can't even decide what its best interests are. Every effective political party is a big tent, trying to hold together a coalition of competing interests.

Hamas is no different. Its leaders, like all political leaders, are playing to diverse audiences and trying to please them all, knowing full well that their audiences have very different, sometimes contradictory, desires. So they often speak vaguely and confusingly. That's why no one is sure exactly what Hamas leaders mean when they announce their views and intentions. To paraphrase what the reporter said about the State Department official, they are such accomplished diplomats that even when they say yes, it can easily sound like no.

But for those who are not deafened by ideology, they did clearly say yes. Not to outright recognition of Israel; that would stretch the Hamas coalition beyond the breaking point. But nations negotiate with others they don't legally recognize all the time. (Nixon and Kissinger became heroes for doing it with China.)

Like Arafat twenty years ago, Mashaal has given a signal that he and his colleagues want to play the power game. They are ready to be flexible, if they get something in return. It's the only way they can hold their coalition together, as Ha'aretz analyst Avi Issacharoff pointed out: "Hamas cannot sell its organization, not to mention the smaller [militant] groups, a calm without getting something in return. ... Hamas' military wing will toe the line of the political leadership if the latter makes significant achievements in cease-fire talks with Israel."

That's just what U.S. and Israeli officials won't allow. They seem committed to maintaining the illusion of their permanent disconnect from Hamas and the illusion of innocence that goes with it, in order to pursue the illusory goal of unchallenged control in the Middle East.

Their other goal -- winning votes in the next election -- may prove to be an illusion, too. A growing number of prominent voices in Israel are calling for negotiations with Hamas, including the mayor of the beleaguered town of Sderot and former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami. Weeks ago a poll showed two-thirds of Israelis favoring direct talks with Hamas, at least for the limited goals of ending attacks from Gaza and retrieving the long-time captive soldier Gilad Shalit. Growing numbers of U.S. Jews are calling for negotiations with Hamas, too.

All these dissenting voices are using different words to deliver one simple message. Hamas leaders are speaking more clearly than ever of their willingness to negotiate. Even if their words are as yet vague and tentative, they have offered an unprecedented opening for peace. The advantages that are supposed to come from ignoring Hamas are illusions. The death and suffering that will come from ignoring Hamas and continuing the conflict are all too real.

Editor's note: There was a change made to this story after publication.


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