It is dangerous to parse pronouncements coming from Hamas by crediting them with too much optimism, but I find Mahmoud Al-Zahar’s interview with Wolf Blitzer to be both maddening and intriguing at the same time (interview transcript). While there were certainly no breakthroughs in his statements, and plenty to be deeply concerned about, I found Al-Zahar’s change of emphasis from the normal run of the mill Hamas talking points to be intriguing.
While he refused to turn his back on Hamas’ professed desire to destroy Israel, he presented his perspective on this in a more realistic way than he has in the past:
Blitzer: If Israel were to accept a complete withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines, including giving up East Jerusalem, would you then accept a two-state solution?
AL-ZAHAR: We can accept to establish our independent state on the area occupied in ’67, and we can give a long-term hudna.…Believe me, Israel is not going to recognize a state even on a square meter in the hands of the Palestinians, because they are not accepting [anything] except the Jewish state. So at that time, we can give long-term hudna or long-term truce, can be (inaudible). More than that, under certain conditions. And after that, let time heal (ph)…
BLITZER: …Do you want to establish a dialogue, conversations, negotiations, talks, whatever you call it, with Israeli officials? Will you talk to them?
AL-ZAHAR: Negotiation is not our aim. Negotiation is a method. If the Israeli is ready to give us the national demand, to withdraw from the occupied area ’67, to release our detainees, to stop their aggression, to make a geographic linkage between Gaza Strip and West Bank, at that time, and with assurance from other side, we are going to accept to establish our independent state at that time, and give up one or two, 10, 15 years time in order to see what is the real intention of Israel after that.
While I’m not an expert on Hamas and don’t know what statements they’ve made in the past on these subjects, I’ve never heard a Hamas official (and Al-Zahar is reputed to be a hardline representative) say the group would be willing to accept Israel’s return to 1967 boundaries as a basis of recognition or hudna.
I think Al-Zahar’s argument on the return to 1967 borders shows some sophistication on his part since Israel’s refusal to accept an international border opens it to accusations of territorial aggrandizement at the expense of the Palestinians:
BLITZER: Are you prepared to accept a two-state solution, Palestine living alongside Israel?
AL-ZAHAR: First of all, I would like to address that. PLO, in 1988 accept[ed] existence of two states.
Since that time, Israelis expanded the borders, occupied ’67, confiscated our right in Jerusalem, put a separating wall between the people and their own homeland. And since that time nobody is able to live as a human being.
They [the PLO] accepted that and they signed an agreement…But, tell me, what is the border of Israel right now? What is the official border to accept this state?…
If we are going to say we are accepting the two states, on what border? Border of ’67? It is already taken by the big settlement around Jerusalem. Mr. Olmert, just yesterday, said Jerusalem is an eternal capital for Israel. Jerusalem is a united city for Israel. So, about what are we going to accept these argument?
If Israel is ready to tell the people, the international community, what is the official border, after that we are going to answer the question.
I think he has a reasonable point here. Israel has laid down conditions for negotiations, saying it will not talk till the Palestinians end terror. Hamas here makes a reasonable condition that Israel first make its territorial claims explicit before negotiations might begin. Of course, Al-Zahar advances this condition because he knows that Israel would never negotiate solely on the basis of a return to 1967 borders. Clinton’s Camp David agreement (rejected by Arafat) called for a return to 1967 borders minus 5-10% of Palestinian territory on which Israel’s major settlement bloc stands. In return, Palestine would have gotten a transfer of Israeli territory in the Negev. It seems clear to be that such a proposal would be a non-starter for Hamas. Which in turn means that Hamas’s sincerity in declaring a long term hudna may likely never be tested. A very cynical ploy on his part though we can also say that Israel’s statements on the same subject have been equally cynical.
You’ll note that Al-Zahar is quick to undermine his offer by declaring his “certainty” that Israel will never accept the creation of a Palestinian state no matter what statements it makes to the world community. While of course many Mideast commentators and Israelis themselves join Al-Zahar in questioning the sincerity of Israel’s claim that it would accept such a state, it would’ve been far more diplomatic for Hamas to put its offer on the table and not prejudge the other side’s (bad) intentions. I think this is an example of a Hamas which is not “ready for primetime” on the international stage. But I digress.
Al-Zahar has another interesting response to a Blitzer question about Hamas’ commitment to annihilate Israel, which indicates a certain pragmatism within Hamas that may eventually trump its arch-rejectionist ideology:
All the time, you are describing [us as] not accepting Israel to exist. I think it is unfair to speak like that, because we are — we are not a supreme power. We are a single people who are living in these occupied territories. Why is our enemy having an atomic bomb? Who is going to destroy the other? Hamas is going to destroy atomic state, or the atomic state is threatening the international security, especially Middle East security?
Why are you insisted to describe us as if we are having the power to destroy Israel? I think it’s fair to speak about the ability of Israel to destroy all the Middle East by their 200 bombs (inaudible) can destroy all the Middle East and Arabic countries…
I note that Al-Zahar accepts the basic premise that Hamas cannot destroy Israel even if it wished to. So while of course everyone outside of Hamas, Iran and Al Qaeda wants to hear the golden words renouncing this objective (and we haven’t), I do think it is progress when the group’s leading representative accepts reality on this score.
Now for the bad stuff. Al-Zahar’s interview also included a lot of Iranian style lunacy and gross distortion of reality. It turns out that my friend, Ray Hanania is right about Hamas’ intent to create an Islamic theocratic society in Palestine:
BLITZER: What about a future Palestinian state? A Hamas would like to see that as part of an Islamic theocracy as opposed to a secular Palestinian state. Is that right?
AL-ZAHAR: Do you think the secular system is serving any nation? Secular system allows homosexuality, allows corruption, allows the spread of the loss of natural immunity, like AIDS. We are here living under Islamic control. Nothing will change. Islam is our constitution. It’s controlling our relationship among the Palestinian society, among the Arabic, and also with the international community.
If you are going to give a hint that Islamic societies will be against the modern life, I think it’s incorrect. Please ask Crown Prince (inaudible) the role of Islam as a major constructive system in the human civilization, building hospitals, universities, while Europe in the Middle Ages were sinking in a deep corruption…
Al-Zahar can swear up and down that Hamas does not and will not accept financial subsidies from Iran nor will it take its marching orders from Iran, but what is this if not a recipe for an Iranian-style Islamic theocracy? The only thing that reassures me is that while Iran’s ayatollah’s never were elected to their positions, Hamas has been elected in a free and fair election. That means that unless Hamas plans to do away with such elections in future (a disastrous mistake should they try it), they could be booted out should Palestinians’ tire of the group’s theocratic notions.
Of course, his notions about AIDS and homosexuality are off the charts nuts, but one must hasten to add that many non-Islamic countries hold similar views. Compare Hamas’ ideas about AIDS with those of Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s president. Not far off. I think the proper response is not to dismiss Hamas out of hand as a band of extremist monsters, but to probe their beliefs to see if they can moderate or change when they are engaged by the outside world. In other words, I urge the international community to judiciously and cautiously attempt to create a dialogue with this movement. It may prove to be futile in the end. But it’s better to try and fail than to immediately dismiss Hamas as a rogue outlaw movement with which we can never do business.
Finally, Al-Zahar raises an anti-Israel shibboleth I’d never heard before (and I thought I’d heard most of ’em):
AL-ZAHAR:…Tell me, what is the border of Israel right now?…The Israelis are putting on their flag two blue lines. That means the river Nile and the Euphrates…
BLITZER: The two blue lines on the Israeli flag that are on top of the Star of David, is that what you’re talking about?
AL-ZAHAR: They are indicating — they are saying that frankly — it is indicating the River Nile and Euphrates (inaudible). On one coin, the gold shekel, there was — it was a map, including Palestine, Sinai, Syria, Jordan and part of Saudi Arabia. So they are not denying that. Ask them about this question…
BLITZER: Well, let’s just be clear about this. What you’re saying is that Israel wants to establish a state between the Nile and the Euphrates, is that what you’re saying?
AL-ZAHAR: Yes. It is written in their Bibles. They are even — it is written in the Knesset. That is the meaning of the David Star that was said as the land of Israel. This is the historical land of Israel.
I don’t make a claim to know every aspect of Zionist thought or practice, but I’d never heard this comment about the Israeli flag. It seems like the paranoiac fantasy of a deluded mind to me. Not that I’m saying Palestinians don’t have plenty of reasons to doubt Israel’s good intentions. But to look for conspiracies in every symbol of the state and Zionist ideology is really too much.
No doubt the basis for this charge lies in the Jabotinsky-era Likud anthem which declares “”one side of the Jordan is ours and so is the other.” By which it means the West Bank and Kingdom of Jordan. But this is a far cry from having Israeli designs on all the territory between the Nile and Euphrates. That’s purely the product of a fevered imagination. That being said, I have to add that there are equally paranoiac statements about Hamas, Palestinians and the Arab world emanating from Israelis, Jews and Dick Cheney, for that matter. I guess paranoia is a two way street.