Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Hamas: One Party, Two Policies?

Senior Hamas Official Mahmoud Zahar's statements to Maan Radio are a snapshot of the fine ideological tightrope Hamas is walking in the wake of the signing of the Fatah-Hamas unity agreement. Most prominent in Zahar's comments is the puzzling statement that Hamas was willing to accept a Palestinian state in "any part of Palestine" but "refuses to recognize Israel."

"Any part of Palestine" is largely understood to be a reference to the 1967 borders. The statement is in many respects a policy shift for Hamas, which historically has held to the goal of liberating "Palestine in its entirety," meaning all of Israel. In the past 6 months, however, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and head of Hamas' Gaza administration Ismail Haniyeh have both stated explicitly their acceptance of a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders.

Yet Zahar also explicitly stated that Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, consistent with Hamas' ideology since its founding around 1987. Hamas' animosity towards Israel is no secret, certainly not to the many victims of its deliberate attacks on Israeli civilians.

So how are analysts to make sense of these two seemingly contradictory statements?

First, there is a difference between establishing a Palestinian state, which is tangible, and recognizing Israel, which is highly normative and intangible. Parties agree to state boundaries because they can live with them, not necessarily because they think they are fair. Boundary disputes are largely pragmatic. Recognition, on the other hand, is much more "squishy." It is an active statement of accepting another actor's legitimacy. But unlike borders, there are no hard and fast lines as to what constitutes recognition, or how much much recognition is "sufficient" in a given context.

Second, the name "Hamas" is an acronym for "The Islamic Resistance Movement," and the theme of resistance is pervasive in its charter. The organization's original reason for existence was to resist Israel. Yet in 2011, the circumstances in which Hamas finds itself both pragmatically and ideologically are very different from 1988. Part of the reason Hamas moved towards a unity agreement with Fatah was because it was becoming sidelined in discussions over the future of the Palestinians and a Palestinian state. Hamas recognizes that, especially after failing to deter an Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008, participation in governance and diplomacy is in its interest. This is not to say that Hamas has set aside its arms or disbanded its military wing. However, in pursuing politicization, Hamas is diversifying where its power is invested. By politicizing, it gains diplomatic influence with Fatah, Israel, the US, and the international community.

But how does Hamas maintain its commitment to resistance on the one hand, and politicization on the other? The answer appears to be Mahmoud Zahar's rhetorical gymnastics. By accepting the 1967 lines, Hamas maintains political relevance. By not recognizing Israel, it maintains ideological consistency.

It is also likely that Zahar's comments reflect an ongoing debate within Hamas itself about the future of the organization. Internal politics may play just as strong a role in the debate as doctrinal divergence about continuing to pursue "resistance." This debate manifested itself elsewhere last week when al-Hayat reported Hamas was willing to restart negotiations over captured Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit. Hamas is now keeping silent about the status of those negotiations and has not even confirmed that it is party to them. Hamas' political wing agreed last month to a deal on Corporal Shalit, but the military wing rejected it. Internal discussions and disagreements manifest themselves in exactly these kinds of policy inconsistencies, be they over negotiations for Gilad Shalit, or for recognition of Israel.

For Western policymakers and analysts, these disagreements mean that statements from Hamas should be taken both in context and with a grain of salt. Hamas has shown that it is willing and able to act in its perceived self-interest. The question now for policymakers is how to best affect Hamas' calculus of its self-interest in favor of pragmatism and the reduction of violence.

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