In January, 2006, Hamas -- an Islamist party with a military wing that is branded as a terrorist group by much of the West -- won one of the freest and fairest elections ever conducted in the Middle East. In doing so, Hamas became the legally and duly chosen representative of the Palestinian people, an inescapable player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and also, necessarily, a factor in any peace process.
Despite apocalyptic and unequivocally anti-Semitic statements contained in its 1988 Charter, the organization has indicated an increasingly clear willingness to coexist with Israel for the foreseeable future, acknowledging it as an established fact in the region. This week, for instance, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal reportedly told a Russian diplomat he would not "stand in the way" of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, with the condition that it be approved in a Palestinian referendum.
Despite similar previous pronouncements, the United States and Israel have avoided formulating a realistic policy towards Hamas, based primarily on three non-negotiable demands: that Hamas recognize Israel, renounce violence, and accept previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Hamas has expressed willingness to enter into truces and to recognize or respect previous understandings. But it has unequivocally rejected the first demand. The United States has insisted that it will not deal with Hamas until all three are fully accepted.
Last month, the U.S. Institute of Peace published a special report we wrote, which sought to present perspectives on Hamas that are absent from current policy discussions. We are an unlikely pair: one an American Jew who lived in Israel for years and supports it as a Jewish state; the other a Palestinian Muslim whose father was expelled from his home at Israel's creation and who believes the state should not have been established. Our views on many issues are often at odds. Yet we pooled our knowledge and perspectives to try to inject some reality into what has often been a discussion defined by dogmatism.
We argue that engagement with Hamas is essential, and possible. To understand how, it is necessary to take into account that many of Hamas's statements and actions are governed and limited by its understanding of Islamic religious law (sharia), a comprehensive code relevant to all aspects of life for believing Muslims, very much including politics. We maintain that Hamas cannot be understood without understanding the sharia background of many of its policies.
By its reading of sharia (a reading it shares with the Muslim mainstream), Israel's establishment is illegitimate and unjust, and its recognition by Muslims is forbidden. Thus far, the Muslim states that have recognized Israel, including Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, have made a political decision to do so, one not grounded in Islamic law. Similarly, the Arab Peace Initiative -- which offered full recognition of Israel by all 19 remaining Arab states in return for Israel's withdrawal to the 1967 boundaries and an "agreed-upon" settlement of the Palestinian refugees -- is a political, not sharia-justified, compromise.
Hamas maintains that accepting Israel's legitimacy necessarily renounces the Palestinian narrative, which defines Palestine as Arab and Muslim, in contrast to the Jewish narrative, which defines the Land of Israel as Jewish by God's promise, by legal right, and by history. Can these two worldviews be reconciled? Absolutely not. Can Hamas and Israel coexist peacefully? We believe they can. Reconciliation is much harder than coexistence.
Hamas has repeatedly offered to end its violent resistance against Israel by means of various sharia-based mechanisms, such as a hudna (time-limited truce) or a tahadiyya (cease-fire). It has also advocated the principle of "Palestinian legitimacy," whereby it would accept as binding the decision of the Palestinian people to accept peace with Israel -- even if Hamas, as a Muslim religious organization, could not reconcile that outcome with sharia and preserve its Muslim beliefs.
To many, this may seem pointless and arcane double-talk. However, within Hamas's frame of reference, these categories are crucial. Taking them into account may be the key to ending the current deadly stalemate.
We do not advocate that either Israel or the United States plunge into negotiations with Hamas based on these principles. Instead, careful and skillful diplomacy, using intermediaries, can test whether Hamas is indeed willing to abide by the necessary agreements. These agreements could eventually result in American and Israeli acceptance of a coalition government, including Hamas, that could negotiate a real peace with Israel. And even in a seemingly real peace, both sides would take a long time before they let down their guard.
We do not claim to be prescribing a series of steps that will assure peace. However, we are urging policymakers to realize that Hamas has signaled repeatedly it is ready for coexistence, and that taking into account Hamas's view of sharia is critical to understanding what the organization will and won't do, and why. Until that happens, we believe the current stalemate is likely to continue.
Space precludes spelling out our full arguments, which can be found here.