Seeing Hamas through different lenses

March 15, 2006|By SHIBLEY TELHAMI

A CNN headline last week left an unmistakable impression: "Al-Qaida's Ayman Zawahiri congratulates Hamas on its victory." Al-Jazeera's take on the same story left an altogether different impression: "Zawahiri attacks Hamas" for embracing the "traitor secularists."

A careful reading of the Arabic text of the statement by Mr. al-Zawahiri, No. 2 to Osama bin Laden, shows that al-Jazeera was more accurate in its emphasis. But the contrast served to underscore that Middle Easterners and Americans are judging Hamas through different lenses, and the degree to which that contrast could change.

Many in the Arab world, including liberals who were hoping to see Hamas defeated in the Palestinian elections, now see possibilities in Hamas' victory and seem fully prepared to accept that the organization will change. They are viewing it through the prism of hope.

Most in the United States are profoundly suspicious of Hamas' ultimate intentions and see in its victory much trouble ahead and view it through the prism of fear.

Each looks for bits of evidence to bolster its view.

The link to al-Qaida is a good place to start. Most Arabs refused to accept the link between al-Qaida and local militant organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah in the Bush administration's war on terrorism, seeing the latter primarily as national movements, even if they are also Islamists.

In the United States, the concern about links or potential links and worry about a unified world view that trumps short-term national goals made the ascendance of Hamas more troubling.

In the short term, Hamas has highlighted its national credentials above all else. Quickly rejecting al-Qaida's offer of help, it put forth a different view: "Hamas believes that Islam is completely different to the ideology of Mr. al-Zawahiri. ... We have no link to any group or element outside of Palestine."

Bolstering its nationalist credentials, which separate Hamas from globalist Islamist movements, was the fact that it never has sent fighters to foreign Islamist causes in Chechnya, Afghanistan or Bosnia and never directly targeted the United States or carried out attacks outside of Israel and the Palestinian territories.

This distinction is important, but it's not a guarantee that Hamas is capable of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state or will accept a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In fact, Hamas continued to reject talk of recognizing Israel as its leaders visited Moscow. In the end, this issue more than any other (including the issue of terrorism) will be the one that defines not only Israeli but also American assessments of the prospect of negotiations.

It's difficult to discern whether Hamas' position is merely tactical or principled because Hamas would not be expected to reveal much of its hand before it forms a government or, more important, before a new Israeli government is formed after the Israeli elections March 28.

But the worry that Hamas means what it says has altered the prospects of Israeli negotiations in surprising ways: a reversal of outlooks on the value of a limited Palestinian state.

When it looked as if Ariel Sharon would be elected prime minister of Israel shortly before his stroke in January, the likely implications of his victory in Israel's elections were generally clear. His plan was to pursue one of two options: either further unilateral withdrawals from parts of the West Bank or an agreement with the Palestinians for establishing a limited state while postponing final-status issues for another prime minister to deal with.

Few believed that Mr. Sharon was capable of making concessions on final-status issues, which include such thorny subjects as Jerusalem, Israel's final borders and the return of Palestinian refugees.

With this assessment, it was the Palestinians who were rejecting such limited notions and pushing for negotiations on final-status issues to resume. Their fear was that Israel would essentially work to turn such a limited state into the final state.

Today, it is Hamas that speaks of a long-term hudna, or cease-fire, and it is Israel that worries that a temporary agreement on a limited state may only give Hamas more power in the future to challenge Israel.

This discounts, in Israeli eyes, the prospect of a limited deal, unless Hamas makes a profound change in its position. Ironically, Israel would now benefit by challenging Hamas to final-status negotiations, something that the Palestinian public wants most but Hamas seems unprepared for.

Any such maneuvers will have to await the outcome of the Israeli elections. For now, the talk is about unilateral Israeli moves to set Israel's borders without negotiations. This may work during an election campaign as the Israeli public sees such a move as a lesser of many evils. But it is difficult to see how such unilateralism that would be rejected by Palestinians could be effectively implemented or bring an end to violence.

The key in the weeks ahead is for everyone to keep the possibilities of change open, even if it remains prudent to be concerned about prospects of a negotiated settlement.

Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, College Park and nonresident senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, writes a monthly column for The Sun. His e-mail is telhami@aol.com.

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