Hamas: Political Rigidity & Ideological Flexibility

by mgopin on July 17, 2009 · 2 comments

Analysis continues on the reality of Hamas’ powerful role in Palestinian politics, whether or not their popularity at this moment is going up or down, in itself a contest topic.

Here is an excerpt from a recent USIP report, no less interesting because it is USIP that has published it. Tell me what you think:

Discussion in the United States regarding Hamas is usually framed by two somewhat contradictory assumptions: (1) that Hamas is ideologically incapable of evolving to accept the existence of Israel and (2) that isolation and strong pressure are the only tools that may force it to recognize Israel. This controversial report challenges both assumptions. On the one hand, the authors, make a case for recognizing that Hamas has already, in certain respects, changed and has sent signals regarding its possible coexistence with Israel. On the other hand, they conclude that Hamas might never “recognize” Israel in the conventional sense and that, since Hamas apparently cannot be eliminated, attempts to engage it must take into account its commitment to the strictures of shari’a.

In other words, the report attempts to inject some gray areas into an issue that is often framed only in black and white terms. In a unique approach, the authors do not ask us to necessarily change our conclusions about the value of such engagement. Instead, they invite us to reevaluate our assumptions by providing a new prism through which to analyze Hamas. The authors themselves–one Jewish and the other Muslim–have very different lenses on this conflict. They disagree on the definition of the conflict and have differing views of how it can be resolved, but they share the goal of providing a framework for understanding Hamas, its motivations, and its self-concept, and of presenting alternative criteria for interpreting the signals that it sends. The authors neither endorse Hamas’ actions or positions nor advocate taking Hamas’ claims at face value, and they certainly do not argue that Israel, the United States, and the West should drop demands for changes by Hamas. On the contrary, they offer a framework to help policymakers develop and deliver such demands more effectively, a framework that takes into account how Hamas views itself and how many in the Muslim world understand the movement. With U.S. allies such as Egypt and Jordan pressing for a Palestinian unity government inclusive of Hamas, it is imperative to consider what kinds of conditions and safeguards would contribute to a successful peace process rather than derail it.

Even if readers accept the authors’ interpretation of Hamas’ thinking, many may still question whether engagement is worthwhile, particularly given–as the report describes–the limits for Hamas to compromise and the very real risk of renewed and potentially more dangerous conflict should a truce end. Others advocate engagement, even in Israel where the debate remains robust and diverse. Experience with intractable conflicts in Northern Ireland, Aceh, and elsewhere suggest that ideologically rigid movements can change over time and that a peace process itself can play a critical role in shaping such an evolution. The report argues that it is not inevitable that Hamas will accept coexistence, only that its acceptance is more likely if framed within its Islamic ideology.

In a region where hopes for peace have been raised and dashed again and again, cynicism is the biggest obstacle facing the Obama administration’s new peace initiative. While no one should be expected to trust blindly, repeated failures to achieve a lasting solution to this seemingly intractable conflict suggest that a reexamination of our assumptions and our analytical frameworks is essential.

© Marc Gopin

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