Playing for zero
Hamas appears as softening to the West, but its flexibility will mean nothing unless the West -- particularly the US -- can rein in Israel, writes Saleh Al-Naami
Ahmed Youssef, under-secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Hamas government in Gaza and the former political advisor to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, is continually receiving European delegations these days. Youssef, who spent most of his life in Washington as one of the directors of a research centre for Palestinian issues, is one of the most important links between the Hamas government and European and American elites. Congress members, former directors of NGOs, academics and peace activists from Europe and the United States are permanent guests in Youssef's office, which is now located in a residential tower after his old office in the Foreign Ministry was blown up by an Israeli F-15 during the recent war on Gaza. Most of the informal European delegations are keen to meet with Haniyeh and his ministers, and Hamas's deputy in the Palestinian Legislative Council.
This flurry of visits comes after Hamas leaders met with European officials and former US diplomats in Geneva in mid-June. Participating in these meetings were Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, member of Hamas's political bureau and former foreign minister in the government, Minister of Health Bassem Naim, government Spokesman Taher Al-Nunu, and Osama Hamdan, Hamas's foreign relations officer. The meetings were organised at the invitation of the "Forward Thinking" organisation with the participation of the Swiss Foreign Ministry's envoy to the Middle East, Jan Daniel Roch. Participating in these meetings were Thomas Pickering, former under-secretary for political affairs in the US State Department, Robert Malley, head of the Middle East programme at the International Crisis Group, former British ambassador to New York and Baghdad Jeremy Greenstock, former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the German parliament Robert Bollins, in addition to researchers and European and US experts in contact with Hamas.
Al-Ahram Weekly learned that European and Hamas representatives discussed disputes over the Quartet's conditions that in order to recognise any future Palestinian government, Palestinians must recognise Israel, honour commitments reached in past agreements, and renounce resistance as "terrorism". Palestinian sources told the Weekly that the Europeans were keen to test Hamas's flexibility, especially since Hamas has already rejected the Quartet's conditions, which in turn stymied efforts at Palestinian dialogue. Although the Americans who participated in these meetings do not hold any official positions in the US administration, their participation in these meetings was coordinated with and promoted by the US State Department.
It is clear in the wake of these meetings that the attitudes of Hamas leaders have changed about the conflict with Israel. During several interviews with US and European newspapers, Khaled Meshaal, chief of Hamas's political bureau, said that Hamas accepts the establishment of a Palestinian state within June 1967 borders. He also said that Hamas would not stand in the way of a peaceful resolution to the conflict with Israel. Hamas representatives stressed that they are not taking a new position, for Hamas's founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, announced his acceptance of a Palestinian state with borders according to the 1967 truce.
Youssef told the Weekly that positions recently expressed by Hamas leaders represent a "reformulation that the West will understand." "To set the record straight," Youssef continued, "it is our right as a people to have an independent state without compromising on any of our other rights that are guaranteed by international law." According to Youssef, these rights include the return of Palestinian refugees, as guaranteed by UN Security Council resolutions. Also, Youssef adds, the right to have Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestinian state. "Therefore, no one should expect that Hamas relinquish this right, and we will not compromise on our nationalistic hopes."
As for recognition of Israel, Youssef said it is "a unique case in international politics. There is no such thing as an international law for 'recognising the right to exist'. International law only attempts to prevent states attacking each other. It goes against international law, in fact, for a state under occupation, like Palestine, to recognise the existence of its oppressor." Youssef said further that Hamas has shown great political flexibility in dealing with Egyptian and international mediation efforts, such as in reaching a truce, the exchange of prisoners, and its readiness to settle the conflict peacefully.
Youssef sees the broad diplomatic move by Hamas as aimed at undercutting Israeli and Zionist propaganda, which portrays Palestinians as terrorists only concerned with death and destruction. "The whole world," Youssef says, "witnessed the horror of the crimes committed by the Israeli war machine during the last war on Gaza." Youssef emphasises the importance of continuing diplomatic efforts. He says there is an urgent need to inform Europeans of what is really happening in the occupied territories. While the international community denounced African apartheid, Israel insisted that the international community consider legitimate apartheid of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Next, Israel tried to de-legitimise the Palestinian right to resist this injustice.
"Unfortunately there is no hope that European countries will form an opinion independent of the US position. Europe follows Washington's rules in all Middle East issues, and so, unless American attitudes change, the European position on Palestine will remain the same," said Youssef. "It has become abundantly clear that without resolving the Palestinian issue and restoring the rights of the Palestinian people, there is no hope for stability in the region. Stability would be in the interest of the US. It makes no sense that Obama, whose election as president represents a monumental change in the legacy of US elections, would not also want to change US policy towards Israel's criminal oppression of the Palestinians."
Adnan Abu Amer, researcher of Islamic groups, believes that Europeans and Americans are meeting with Hamas representatives to discern Hamas's position. Abu Amer points out that those who participated in meetings with Hamas representatives and officials were either former diplomats or political elites who play no role in decision- making in Europe or the United States.
Abu Amer told the Weekly that these meetings would not bring about a real breakthrough in relations between the two sides. "The Europeans and the Americans are concerned only about keeping up the status quo in American relations with the Palestine Liberation Organisation [PLO]. When the US administration insisted that the PLO recognise Israel and renounce its resistance in return for the beginning of a dialogue with Washington, the result was that the PLO recognised Israel, but Israel did not recognise the rights of the Palestinian people. The US used its relations with the PLO to blackmail and pressure Palestinians to give up more land and national rights."
Abu Amer adds: "If, for the sake of argument, Hamas accepted the terms of the Quartet, what would they get in return? The Israeli rightwing government has been defying the US administration and publicly announced its refusal to halt settlement activity and withdraw from the occupied Palestinian territories. There are those who believe that Hamas would abandon its principles in order to be recognised by Europe and the US, but this is just an illusion. It would be suicide for Hamas."
It is clear that there is a change in tone inside the Hamas movement, recognising the need for openness to the world and specifically to the West, but unless this is accompanied by a European and American willingness to pressure Israel to back down from its positions, the current exchanges between Hamas and the West will make no difference
The link: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2009/959/re2.htm