Misnomers and Misdirection

Hey, Bibi: Calling Hamas the al Qaeda of Palestine isn't just wrong, it's stupid.

In a rousing speech before Congress on May 24, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected peace talks with the newly unified Palestinian government because it now includes -- on paper at least -- officials from the terrorist (or, in its own eyes, "resistance") group Hamas. In a striking moment, Netanyahu defiantly declared, "Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by the Palestinian version of al Qaeda," a statement greeted with resounding applause from the assembled members of Congress.

But hold on a minute. Yes, Hamas, like al Qaeda, is an Islamist group that uses terrorism as a strategic tool to achieve political aims. Yes, Hamas, like al Qaeda, rejects Israel and has opposed the peace talks that moderate Palestinians have tried to move forward. And sure, the Hamas charter uses language that parallels the worst anti-Semitism of al Qaeda, enjoining believers to fight Jews wherever they may be found and accusing Jews of numerous conspiracies against Muslims, ranging from the drug trade to creating "sabotage" groups like, apparently, violent versions of Rotary and Lions clubs.

But the differences between Hamas and al Qaeda often outweigh the similarities. And ignoring these differences underestimates Hamas's power and influence -- and risks missing opportunities to push Hamas into accepting a peace deal.

While Congress was quick to applaud Bibi's fiery analogy, U.S. counterterrorism officials know that one of the biggest differences is that Hamas has a regional focus, while al Qaeda's is global. Hamas bears no love for the United States, but it has not deliberately targeted Americans. Al Qaeda, of course, sees the United States as its primary enemy, and it doesn't stop there. European countries, supposed enemies of Islam such as Russia and India, and Arab regimes of all stripes are on their hit list. Other components of the "Salafi-jihadist" movement (of which al Qaeda is a part) focus operations on killing Shiite Muslims, whom they view as apostates. Hamas, in contrast, does not call for the overthrow of Arab regimes and works with Shiite Iran and the Alawite-dominated secular regime in Damascus, pragmatically preferring weapons, money, and assistance in training to ideological consistency.

Hamas, like its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, also devotes much of its attention to education, health care, and social services. Like it or not, by caring for the poor and teaching the next generation of Muslims about its view of the world, Hamas is fundamentally reshaping Palestinian society. Thus, many Palestinians who do not share Hamas's worldview nonetheless respect it; in part because the Palestinian moderates so beloved of the West have often failed to deliver on basic government functions. The old Arab nationalist visions of the 1950s and 1960s that animated the moderate Palestinian leader Mahmood Abbas and his mentor Yasir Arafat have less appeal to Palestinians today.

One of the greatest differences today, as the Arab spring raises the hope that democracy will take seed across the Middle East, is that Hamas accepts elections (and, in fact, took power in Gaza in part because of them) while al Qaeda vehemently rejects them. For Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Ladin's deputy and presumed heir-apparent, elections put man's (and, even worse, woman's) wishes above God's. A democratic government could allow the sale of alcohol, cooperate militarily with the United States, permit women to dress immodestly, or a condone a host of other practices that extremists see as forbidden under Islam. So yes, Hamas, like al Qaeda, talks of an Islamic government, but in practice it makes compromises, as its unity agreement with Abbas and his regime suggests. In power, Hamas has tried to Islamicize Gaza, and its rule in Gaza is notable for its repression, but it has not imposed a draconian regime as did the Taliban in Afghanistan, the only government al Qaeda ever recognized as truly Islamic.

In the end, Hamas is pragmatic. It makes compromises with rivals, cuts deals with potentially hostile foreign sponsors, and otherwise tries to strengthen its political position, even if this exposes it to the charge of hypocrisy.

Nowhere is this more apparent that in Hamas's relations with Israel. Especially since the 2008-2009 Cast Lead Operation, where Israeli forces hit Gaza hard, Hamas has often (though not always) adhered to a ceasefire with Israel. In the months following Cast Lead, only a few rockets were launched at Israel from Gaza, and Israeli officials told me those were probably from other Palestinian groups or were otherwise not an official Hamas action. Gazans did not want to go another round with Israel's army, and Hamas feared alienating them.

Yet Hamas tries to maintain its street cred as a resistance organization. It has at times allowed other groups to launch attacks on Israel, and in recent months launched missile salvos itself, risking an end to the de facto ceasefire. Internal pressures within Gaza, particularly criticisms from Salafi-jihadists with ideologies akin to al Qaeda, as well as Israeli attacks on Hamas personnel, have at times led the group to risk further retaliation, but this careful calculation is a far cry from al Qaeda's call for constant struggle.

Hamas needs no reminder that al Qaeda is more foe than friend. Though Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas's leader in Gaza, praised bin Ladin after his death as an "Arab holy warrior," this was largely pandering to his religious base. In fact, the relationship between Hamas and al Qaeda, and between Hamas and al Qaeda-like jihadists in Gaza, is far more contentious. Zawahiri has blasted Hamas for adhering to ceasefires with Israel, not immediately implementing Islamic law in Gaza, and otherwise deviating from the pure faith of jihadism.

To prevent these ideas from eroding its support, Hamas has harshly repressed al Qaeda-inspired jihadists in Gaza, arresting and even torturing some of the individuals linked to these groups, according to Israeli sources. In 2009, one Salafi-jihadist preacher declared Gaza to be an Islamic state; Hamas stormed the mosque that was his base, killing him and over 20 others.

But the biggest difference is that Hamas is a success while al Qaeda is a failure. Hamas has gone from a small group overshadowed by Yasir Arafat's Fatah to a large and powerful organization. Whether we like it or not, Hamas is the government of Gaza -- and terrorism helped them get there. And with the fall of Mubarak and the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as an important political actor there, Hamas may gain influence.  Al Qaeda, in contrast, is if anything farther from its goals of ending U.S. regional influence and establishing a caliphate than it was 15 years ago.

Despite Netanyahu's rhetoric, Hamas cannot simply be wished away when it comes to the peace process. It represents a large portion of Palestinian opinion, and it has repeatedly demonstrated that it can use suicide bombers, rocket attacks, or other forms of terrorism to disrupt any talks. But the group's occasional pragmatism suggests that under the right conditions it can be convinced not to play the spoiler. Such an effort may fail and involves many sticks as well as carrots, but a similar effort with al Qaeda would be a fool's errand.

Netanyahu's government may be dead-set against talking with Hamas, but treating it like al Qaeda and using this as a reason to not negotiate with moderates like Abbas only convinces skeptical Palestinians that negotiations will never work. Indeed, the failure to restart peace talks only makes Hamas stronger, making a difficult task impossible in the years to come.



Should the Palestinians Recognize Israel as a Jewish State?

No -- it's just another delaying tactic by Benjamin Netanyahu.

Most observers expected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to target his harshest criticisms of the Palestinians during his U.S. trip on the Hamas-Fatah agreement. Surprisingly, his most important talking point turned out to be his demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state." To be sure, Netanyahu took every opportunity to denounce the Palestinian unity deal, compare Hamas to al Qaeda, and point out that some of its leaders had praised Osama bin Laden. But his most pointed, passionate, and persistent theme was that the core of the conflict, and the key to its solution, is that Palestine refuses to recognize Israel as a "Jewish state."

As he told a joint meeting of Congress, "It is time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say... 'I will accept a Jewish state.' Those six words will change history."

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor echoed Netanyahu, claiming, "The Palestinians' and the broader Arab world's refusal to accept Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state... is the root of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It is not about the '67 lines." Washington resonated to the voices of Israeli officials and their supporters similarly insisting that the conflict is not about territory or Palestinian independence, but about this issue instead.

The idea that Palestinians need to formally recognize the "Jewish character" of Israel is relatively new. Indeed, it does not predate the Annapolis Conference of 2007, where it was briefly floated by the Israeli delegation. Back then, Palestinians rejected it as an irrelevant diversion from final-status issues such as borders, security, Jerusalem, and refugees. The George W. Bush administration wasn't impressed either, and in his address at the conference President Bush simply referred to Israel as "a homeland for the Jewish people."

The historic requirement for the Palestinians was, in the words of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, to recognize Israel's "right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force." The Jewish state issue was never raised during Israel's negotiations with Egypt and Jordan. The Palestine Liberation Organization formally recognized Israel in the Letters of Mutual Recognition in 1993, which were the basis for the Oslo process and all subsequent negotiations, while Israel merely recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The PLO then went through a torturous series of emendations of its core documents. The Palestinians had, at that point, fully satisfied all extant diplomatic and legal requirements regarding recognition of Israel, and waited in vain for Israel to recognize an independent state of Palestine in return.

Following his re-election in 2009, Netanyahu has increasingly made this demand a mainstay. Indeed, he and his supporters now say it is not only crucial, but that it is the only real issue, even though it was never raised during most of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, including during his first term as prime minister.

The idea that a state -- or in this case a potential state -- should participate in defining the national character of another is highly unusual, if not unique, in international relations. The Palestinian position, stated many times by President Mahmoud Abbas, is that the PLO recognizes Israel, and that Israel is free to define itself however it chooses.

There are several crucial concerns that make Palestinian acceptance of this new demand, particularly as a prerequisite to further negotiations, extremely difficult.

Apart from strongly feeling that they have already met all reasonable demands that could be imposed on them in regard to recognizing Israel without a reciprocal recognition of an independent Palestine, Palestinian leaders worry about the ways in which this could prejudice some key final-status issues, notably refugees. Palestinian leaders are well aware that a wide-scale implementation of the right of refugees to return to Israel is a nonstarter from Israel's perspective. It's also, however, the most politically challenging issue any Palestinian leadership will have to sell to its constituency to win support for an end-of-conflict agreement; refugee return is both a right clearly enshrined in international law and one of the principal themes of the Palestinian national narrative. It is one of the few major cards the Palestinians have left to play, and, while it is reasonable to urge them to work harder to prepare their public for the necessary concessions, it is not reasonable to ask them to compromise it away before an overall agreement is concluded.

While the Palestinians clearly accept the logic of two states, and have always acknowledged a final-status agreement will involve an end of claims between the parties, they reasonably feel that asking them to formally endorse language about Israel's character as a Jewish state might prejudice leverage they could get on other crucial final-status issues from compromises on refugee return. Most serious observers have long understood that the issue of Jerusalem is the analogous problem on the Israeli side, and that no matter how much Israeli leaders and their public do not like it, no Palestinian leadership will accept an agreement that does not base the Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. Therefore, the refugee issue is widely seen as the best, and perhaps the only, leverage the Palestinians have to get the Israelis to make their own most painful compromise on the future of Jerusalem.

Moreover, Palestinians are concerned that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state might be seen as endorsing discrimination against the Palestinian minority in Israel, which is approximately 20 percent of the population. They point out that Jewish Israelis do not agree at all on what the Jewish character of Israel means. Important sections of Israeli law, life, and society are structured in a discriminatory manner based on "nationality" (i.e., "Jewish," "Arab," and scores of other classifications made by the state) as opposed to citizenship. This discrimination applies to housing, education, military service and its many benefits, access to publicly owned lands and other important aspects of social and economic life. Palestinians are understandably uncomfortable with anything that might smack of acquiescence to these structures of discrimination that permeate Israeli society in favor of those classified by the state as "Jewish."

For decades, Palestinians were told to recognize Israel and renounce violence, and through their sole legitimate international representative, the PLO, they did so almost 20 years ago, even though it meant effectively renouncing claims on a full 78 percent of the country in which they had been a large majority in 1948. They did this on the understanding that it would lead, in short order, to their own independence in an excruciatingly small part of what they regard, with impeccable historical credentials, as their own country. That has not transpired and does not appear imminent. Now they are being told that they have not done enough, that this novel concept is now the defining issue, that they once again have to read from a script being handed to them by Israeli leaders, and that if they will only say the new magic words the problem will be solved.

I doubt there is a single Palestinian who does not believe that behind Netanyahu's demand lies a fundamental disinclination to agree to a truly independent and sovereign Palestinian state. Indeed, at the Knesset on May 16 and at the Congress on May 24, he insisted on a long-term Israeli military presence along the Jordan River, effectively denying this potential Palestinian state control of its own borders. This places Netanyahu squarely at odds with U.S. President Barack Obama's clear reference to a "full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces" from the areas to become a Palestinian state, as does his continued strong implication that he is not prepared to negotiate seriously about Jerusalem. Therefore Netanyahu's insistence that the only real issue is for Abbas to intone the incantation "I accept Israel as a Jewish state" rings exceptionally hollow.

Netanyahu's demand is an additional and quite recent complication to an already tangled knot, but it has sunk so deeply into the Israeli and pro-Israel consciousness that some sort of language to satisfy it may ultimately have to be found. Reciprocal recognition of the Jewish right of self-determination in Israel and the Palestinian right of self-determination in Palestine might well prove a requisite final flourish on a peace agreement. But expecting or demanding Palestinians to embellish their already unrequited recognition of Israel with an extremely problematic, premature, and, at this stage, politically impossible statement about Israel as a "Jewish state" (again, whatever that might mean) can only be interpreted as another, and entirely gratuitous, obstacle to peace.