The Bible asks rhetorically whether a leopard can change its spots. Maybe not. But people and political movements can. Witness Hamas, which the current Israeli government views as the devil incarnate for its terror and rocket attacks against its citizens.
But the best way to characterize both what is happening within Hamas since the announcement of its unity government with Fatah, and Israel’s querulous response to it, is the old Bob Dylan lyric:
Something’s happening and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
Hamas seems to be thawing like those giant Arctic ice sheets which are heaving and dropping into the ocean with huge bursts of sound and fury. Witness this AP story:
Hamas officials speak of reconciliation with the West and a halt in armed hostilities with Israel, and even hint at some sort of political accommodation with the Jewish state. While Israel is not convinced, there are hopes in some Palestinian circles that the Iran-backed group could become a more accepted part of the Mideast diplomatic equation.
“The world should realize that we have made many changes,” said Ghazi Hamad, the deputy foreign minister of the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip. “The international community should not run away from these changes.”
…Israelis…could hardly be more skeptical. But the world community has mostly ignored Israel’s calls to isolate the new government, suggesting a willingness to let Hamas prove it has changed.
Both Hamas officials and outside analysts say the group has learned some bitter lessons during its four years in power in Gaza. The impression is that Israel’s blockade, which caused widespread hardship in the crowded territory, a blistering Israeli military offensive two years ago and the uprisings throughout the Arab world have all factored into its thinking.
Hani Masri, a Palestinian commentator who sometimes mediates between Hamas and its secular rival, Fatah, said Hamas realized that to lead the Palestinians, it needs “acceptance by the international community, particularly the West.”
…Hamas has sent a series of signals recently aimed at showing that it will not be the reason for any new breakdown. While refusing to disarm or give up its “right to resist,” leaders – including Gaza Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in a speech last week – say they are committed to preserving “calm” with Israel.
The group says it will carry out attacks on Israel only as part of a Palestinian “consensus,” in effect giving President Abbas, an outspoken critic of violence, veto power over terror and rocket attacks.
And critically, its leadership, including its exiled supreme leader Khaled Mashaal, have signaled they will not stand in the way of any agreement Abbas might reach with Israel.
At a signing ceremony last week in Cairo, Mashaal referred to an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and made no references to Israel’s destruction.
…Fawaz Gerges, a Mideast analyst who has closely studied the evolution of Hamas and frequently talks to members of the group, said he is convinced it has changed.
The London School of Economics professor said support among the Palestinian public for an accommodation with Israel – and the revolution in Egypt, whose new leadership brokered the reconciliation – have deeply affected the group.
“They have come to the conclusion that settlement (with Israel) is the only way to go,” he said.
Bibi of course chooses in his florid, hyperbolic style to argue that neither leopards nor Palestinian militant groups can change their spots. He ignores, of course, decades of pre-state and post-state political developments in which many former Jewish terrorists did precisely that, transforming themselves from militants to statesmen in a matter of years: Ben Tzvi, Begin, and Shamir are but a few examples.
So of course Hamas, like the Irgun and other Jewish militant groups can certainly change their spots. Whether Hamas is truly in the midst of doing so or this will prove to be yet another false start for a peace initiative remains to be seen. But Fawaz Gerges is someone I trust and when he says it’s true, I tend to believe that there is something happening here and we’d better find out what it is.