June 28, 2009

Hamas's Open Hand

In the immediate aftermath of his speech in Cairo, President Obama enjoyed an umbrella of goodwill. Those who found fault with his policy or questioned his sincerity were told to give the man some time and space to prove himself. But time moves fast in the Middle East and less than a month later, Obama is dealing with the consequences of his speech.

Hamas wants to talk. Maybe not in the traditional sense, but it’s showing signs of opening its hand.

Addressing supporters in the Syrian capital of Damascus, Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal spit his usual anti-Israeli venom. He ruled out recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, equating the demand to Nazism, and rejected most of what Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu outlined in his speech on Palestine.

But for the second time Meshaal held his tongue on Obama, couching neutrality in his skepticism. Last month he told reporters in Egypt, “There is a new language from President Obama, but we expect real pressure on Israelis. There are demands Israel stop the settlements but this is not the price we are after, although it's an essential step.”

Back in Damascus, Meshaal reiterated, “We appreciate Obama's new language towards Hamas. And it is the first step in the right direction towards a dialogue without conditions, and we welcome this. American's talk today, of freezing settlements, and of a Palestinian state, is a good matter, but it's not new. Many administrations spoke of freezing settlements.”

Meshaal even endorsed a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, the same position that the Palestinian Authority (PA) holds. Like the PA, Meshaal rejected a demilitarized Palestine, saying, “The state that Netanyahu talked about, with control on it by land, sea and air, is a freak entity and a big prison, not a country fit for a great people.”

Unfortunately President Obama expressed no criticism about demilitarization even though his ambassador, George Mitchell, is busy preaching a viable Palestinian state. Military equals sovereignty, as Meshaal pointed out, “More important is the extent of their [America’s] response to the rights of our people and the reality of the Palestinian state they talk about. Its borders, its sovereignty, that is why our stance of the Obama administration is still under examination.”

That Hamas is still examining Obama is a positive sign. Though clearly skeptical, Hamas seems to have withheld judgment for the time being. Obama has yet to rock the boat and until he does, he’s likely to enjoy moderate support from Hamas. Obama must capitalize by sincerely engaging Hamas with only some preconditions. His window is unlikely to stay open for long; hope and trust easily spoil in Palestine.

Hamas has temporarily ceased launching rockets and suicide bombers. Hamas and Fatah are currently swapping prisoners in an attempt to boast reconciliation, while rumors claim Hamas may soon exchange the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for Israeli-held Hamas members. As consensus builds that Hamas must be included in the negotiations for Palestine, Hamas is demonstrating it actually wants to play a positive role.

Hamas doesn’t accept Israel’s terms outright, but few Palestinians or Muslims do. Nor will it universally agree to Obama’s (and Israel’s) demands - that Hamas disarm, recognize Israel, and abide by past agreements.

But Meshaal recognized a two-state solution, which recognizes Israel despite opposition to a “Jewish state.” Egypt and Saudi Arabia have similarly opposed a strict Jewish state, revealing that Hamas isn’t so different from America's allies. Agreeing to pre-1967 borders is also an admission to abide by past agreements.

President Obama can’t expect Hamas to forfeit its arms for free. Disarming Hamas will come at the back end of a successful peace process, not at the beginning.

Taken in context, Hamas has made several positive overtures with President Obama in office. Failing to extend diplomatic feelers would be a mistake. He can’t expect Hamas to do everything he orders and shouldn’t demand that Hamas give up all its leverage before negotiating. Obama may not admit it, but he needs Hamas as much as Fatah.

Hamas is trying to open its hand. Obama shouldn’t close it. Shunning the organization after its improving behavior would send the wrong message to Palestinians and Muslims in general, and risks exposing him as a fraud.

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