Oct 1 2006

Nixed Signals

When Hamas hinted at peace, U.S. media wouldn’t take the message

Hamas graffiti, West Bank (cc photo: Soman/Wikimedia)

Hamas graffiti, West Bank (cc photo: Soman/Wikimedia)

After the June 25 capture of one of its soldiers in a raid by Hamas militants, Israel responded with a massive invasion of Gaza. It destroyed the area’s electrical generators, blew up bridges and launched a barrage of artillery at Palestinian camps and settlements. Palestinian fighters vowed steadfast resistance. Whatever meager hopes remained for peace talks, cease-fires or an improvement in the already dire humanitarian situation in Gaza seemed to have evaporated. Israel was demanding the unconditional release of the soldier, while leaders of Hamas—in control of the Palestinian government following the January 2006 elections—insisted he would be returned only in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

For the U.S. news-consuming public, hopes for a durable halt to Israeli/Palestinian violence must have seemed even slimmer than the stand-off over the captured soldier might have led one to believe. For U.S. news outlets were informing their readers that Hamas was not merely an armed group holding a hostage as a bargaining chip. It was a terrorist faction “sworn to Israel’s destruction” (Boston Globe, 6/26/06) that “refuses to recognize Israel” (Baltimore Sun, 6/27/06). “Sworn to Israel’s destruction,” a New York Daily News editorial explained (6/29/06), “Hamas has made a pariah of the Palestinian government.” “The group, sworn to Israel’s destruction, has refused international calls to renounce violence or recognize Israel’s right to exist,” wrote the Associated Press (6/29/06).

To Americans all too accustomed to watching the intractable Israeli/ Palestinian conflict from afar, a kidnapped soldier might have seemed, in itself, to be a manageable problem. But as long as Israel was faced with a Palestinian government in the hands of a group that “refuses to recognize Israel and wants to fight, not talk,” as Philadelphia Inquirer foreign affairs analyst Trudy Rubin put it (7/7/06), what option did Israel have besides all-out war? How could Israel negotiate with a group unalterably committed to its destruction?

“Not a prisoner of dogmas”

Americans had been hearing this message since long before Hamas’ January victory in the Palestinian legislative elections. Established in 1987 as the Palestinian branch of the Egypt-based Muslim Brother- hood movement, Hamas from the very start staked out a position of uncompromising militancy in the fight against Israel. Adopting a blatantly anti-Semitic founding charter that cites The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and explicitly rejects a peaceful solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it denounced the 1993 Oslo Accords and refused to participate in the Palestinian political system established in the wake of the agreement. Most notoriously, it was known for its gruesome suicide attacks that claimed the lives of hundreds of Israeli civilians, especially after the start of the Second Intifada in late 2000.

Throughout the 1990s, Hamas functioned to a large extent as a hardline underground Palestinian opposition movement, frequently lashing out against Israel in order to discredit Yassir Arafat’s ruling Fatah party, which kept a firm and authoritarian grip on Palestinian politics. On countless occasions, peace moves between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority were undermined by Hamas violence. These attacks were motivated not only by a desire to capitalize on public disillusionment with the Arafat-led peace process, but by anger at Hamas’ political marginalization at the hands of old-guard Fatah apparatchiks.

Yet analysts also saw the potential for far-reaching change in Hamas’ political outlook. As early as 2000, a study by Israel’s leading academic specialists on Hamas (Shaul Mishal and Avraham Sela, The Palestinian Hamas) cautioned that the Islamist group, despite its fanatical image, “is not a prisoner of its own dogmas. It does not shut itself behind absolute truths, nor does it subordinate its activities and decisions to the officially held religious doctrine.”

After the signing of the Oslo Accords, a Palestinian government was set up and a growing consensus for a two-state solution solidified within Palestinian public opinion. Hamas came under increasing popular pressure, including from some of its own supporters, to shift in a more pragmatic direction—to join the political process, compete in elections and reach consensus with the dominant Fatah party, which favors peace with Israel. But pragmatists within Hamas faced resistance from the group’s more hardline cadres, who fiercely opposed any departures from the rigid ideology of the movement’s founding charter and who argued that moderation by Hamas would be met with neither concessions from Israel nor greater openness on the part of Fatah. The pace of ideological change was glacial.

Yet as Mishal and Sela observed, the group possessed a deft “ability to justify controversial political conduct in religious terms” and a “willingness to exist with internal contradiction.” The scholars’ conclusion: “We cannot rule out the possibility of a significant shift in Hamas’ relations with Israel to the point that what seems ideologically heretical in the present might become inevitable in the future.”

“Signs of pragmatism”

As the 2006 Palestinian elections approached, a number of analysts were asking whether that day had finally arrived. For the first time, Hamas had decided to compete in a national parliamentary election, which forced the Islamists to shift their focus away from the struggle against Israel. After having carried out almost 30 suicide bombings in Israel during the Second Intifada, the group agreed to a cease-fire and adhered to it. As of this writing, Hamas has not carried out a suicide attack inside Israel since August 2004. “Sometimes one has to rub one’s eyes in disbelief when one sees Hamas activists demanding with all their might that [Palestinians] refrain from violence and maintain the calm,” wrote Danny Rubinstein, who covers Palestinian affairs for Ha’aretz, the Israeli newspaper (12/12/05). “No Hamas activists have been involved in terror attacks recently.”

More importantly, the group had begun to signal that it was ready to adjust its political position on the conflict with Israel. “Slowly, painstakingly, but inexorably, Hamas is moving away from its traditional notion that Palestine is an Islamic waqf [land-in-trust] ‘from the river to the sea,’” observed the Economist’s veteran Palestine correspondent, Graham Usher (Middle East Report Online, 8/21/05). The party had not simply reverted to a strategy of “a long-term armistice (hudna) that would accept the ‘1967 Territories’ as a Palestinian proto-state until the forces of Islam are strong enough to recover Palestine ‘as a whole.’” Rather, Usher reported, “Hamas is signaling that it accepts Israel as a political reality today and is intimating that it would accept a final agreement with Israel ‘according to the parameters of the [1991] Madrid conference and U.N. resolutions,’ says Palestinian analyst Khaled Hroub, an authority on the Islamist party.”

Just before the election, Robert Malley, the former Middle East policy director in the Clinton National Security Council, organized a report for the International Crisis Group (Enter Hamas: The Challenges of Political Integration, ICG, 1/18/06) that reviewed the “signs of pragmatism” coming from Hamas. Based on dozens of interviews in the field with officials from Hamas, Israel and elsewhere, the report observed that, “far more than Fatah, Hamas has proved a disciplined adherent to the cease-fire, and Israeli military officers readily credit this for the sharp decline in violence. In recent statements, Hamas leaders have not ruled out changing their movement’s charter, negotiating with Israel or accepting a long-term truce on the basis of an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines.” Underlining the depth of Hamas’ ideological shift since its charter was adopted in 1988, the paper judged that “today, their electoral platform is in these respects closer to Fatah’s outlook than to Hamas’ founding principles.”

Perhaps the single most knowledgeable observer of Hamas in the West is Alastair Crooke, a former British intelligence officer who served as liaison to the Palestinian National Authority for the European Union from 1997 to 2003 and worked closely with CIA director George Tenet. In a private policy paper distributed to E.U. officials at the time of the January elections (cited in UPI, 2/2/06), Crooke wrote that Hamas’ growing willingness to support a comprehensive halt to violence and negotiations with Israel leading to two states represented an unprecedented opportunity for peace, since, unlike during the Oslo years, “the results of such talks would actually be implemented by a disciplined movement with a mandate from its own people”—i.e., Hamas. Such a deal “offers the best chance for an enduring settlement” with Israel, Crooke judged.

Peace vs. disengagement

But an “enduring settlement” along those lines was of little interest to the Israeli leadership. Israel’s current policy toward the Palestinians dates back to late 2003, when Ariel Sharon engineered a wrenching ideological shift of his own. Breaking from decades of Israeli doctrine, which had always opposed the dismantling of any Jewish settlements in the occupied territories before a final and comprehensive settlement with the Palestinians, Sharon announced plans to unilaterally withdraw all settlers and soldiers from Gaza and hinted at a few further withdrawals in the West Bank. He called this strategy “disengagement.”

Ha’aretz diplomatic editor Aluf Benn (Washington Quarterly, Spring/05) explained the strategy behind Sharon’s “major policy break”:

What was Sharon doing? He explain[ed] that he wanted to preempt [international] pressures for a deeper withdrawal, perhaps from virtually all of the West Bank, and rebuild domestic consensus from behind the new line. He opted to give away Gaza, with its dense Palestinian population and minimal strategic value, for a longer and stronger hold over most of the West Bank. Coupled with his planned barrier route, Sharon and his aides argued that disengagement is not a peace plan, but an attempt to dictate a new reality—an alternative to negotiations, given the lack of a credible “partner.” In theory, Israel had exchanged Gaza for the West Bank, or territory for time.

Breaking away from the purists on the right-wing of his Likud Party who rejected any dismantling of settlements, Sharon created a new election vehicle, Kadima, as a standard-bearer for the unilateral policy, which was soon dubbed “realignment.” When the Israeli leader was incapacitated by a stroke in January 2006, his deputy and successor, Ehud Olmert, took up the mantle of the Sharon vision.

In a January 24 speech, Olmert signaled that he planned to proceed “as soon as possible” to the unilateral “determination of permanent borders of the State of Israel.” Olmert’s version of the plan was foggy on the territorial details. But he made clear that Israel would permanently “maintain control over the security zones, the Jewish settlement blocs, and those places which have supreme national importance to the Jewish people, first and foremost a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty” (Federal News Service, 1/25/06). Geoffrey Aaronson, a specialist on Israeli/Palestinian territorial issues, estimated that such a border would run roughly along the existing route of Israel’s “separation barrier” and would involve the annexation of about 10 percent of the West Bank (Report on Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 5/6/06).

The Bantustan solution

Map of the Mofaz Plan (Jan de Jong/FMEP)

Projected map of the Mofaz Plan for the final borders of a Palestinian state. The plan represents the current thinking of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Kadima Party. (Map: Jan de Jong/FMEP)

Such a solution is anathema not only to Hamas but to virtually every Palestinian figure of stature, including Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. As Benn wrote, “under present circumstances, no Palestinian leader will be willing, or able, to accept less” than “a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza (with minor [1967] border modifications on a quid pro quo basis) with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

The borders Olmert envisions, by contrast, are designed to interlace the population centers of the western half of the West Bank, where almost all the area’s towns and villages are located, yielding a barely contiguous territory that would permanently place the day-to-day movement of goods and people within a Palestinian state at the mercy of the Israeli authorities.

Such a state would be essentially non-viable. When the RAND Corporation carried out a massive study on the economic and demographic prospects for a Palestinian state (Building a Successful Palestinian State, 2005), its authors wrote: “This study concludes that none of the major conditions of success—security, good governance, economic viability and social welfare—can be realized unless Palestinian territory is substantially contiguous”—defining contiguity as the state’s “size, shape and territorial coherence.” A companion study (The Arc: The Formal Structure of a Palestinian State, 2005) featured maps projecting the shape of a feasible transport grid in the West Bank. The maps make it obvious that under the final borders demanded by Olmert, almost every major connecting route in the West Bank would have to cross Israeli territory.

Thus, just as Hamas was inching toward acceptance of a long-term understanding based on the 1967 borders, Sharon and Olmert were making a bold and risky bid to avoid precisely such a settlement. Council on Foreign Relations specialist Henry Siegman, a former head of the American Jewish Congress, summarized it this way (New York Review of Books, 4/27/06): “Hamas is not opposed to negotiations with Israel, provided . . . that negotiations, when they are resumed, will take the pre-1967 border as their starting point.” But the group would remain unshakably hostile to Sharon’s policy of unilateralism, which “continues to serve as the euphemism for Israeli policies that are . . . concentrating the Palestinian population . . . in territorially disconnected Bantustans that make a mockery of the promise of an independent, sovereign and viable Palestinian state.”

“Sworn to Israel’s destruction”

As the Palestinian elections approached, the Israeli government had a problem. Though few were predicting an outright Hamas victory, the Islamists were widely expected to do well. A strong Hamas showing would be a serious obstacle to Olmert’s “realignment” strategy. Almost a year before the vote, Ha’aretz’s Danny Rubinstein (3/14/05) predicted that if Hamas entered a governing Palestinian coalition, “the rules will change in the Israeli/Palestinian negotiating process. The Palestinian positions will stiffen enormously.” On the West Bank, for example, Palestinians would insist on discussing not only the isolated settlements from which Olmert was willing to withdraw, but also the 200,000 Israeli colonists in the three large “settlement blocs,” which, “as far as many Palestinians are concerned—and certainly in the eyes of Hamas—are also settlements.”

Moreover, the more Hamas signaled that it might accept a two-state solution along the 1967 borders—a position viewed as legitimate by most of the world’s governments—the more Sharon and Olmert would find themselves pressured to negotiate with the Palestinian government. One cabinet minister from the Labor Party, Olmert’s main coalition partner, explained the prime minister’s attitude to negotiations this way (Jerusalem Post, 6/23/06):

Sure, Olmert will have talks with Abu Mazen [i.e., Abbas]. But those talks won’t lead anywhere because we have no interest in their successful consummation. We can then turn to our friends in the U.S. and Europe and say, “You see, we tried, unsuccessfully; we now have no choice but to go to realignment.”

So in the run-up to the elections, the Israelis honed a simple public-relations strategy. As described by one Israeli official (Forward, 2/3/06), “the Israeli diplomatic corps worldwide has been instructed to confront notions that Hamas might be an acceptable interlocutor by reminding the international community that Hamas is a terrorist organization sworn to the destruction of Israel.”

“Sworn to the destruction of Israel.” It’s a vivid phrase that deserves close attention. Most obviously, it evokes a violent calamity—the obliteration of the Jewish state, with all the mayhem and suffering that would entail. But the expression also paints an indelible image of Hamas’ single-mindedness. Even if the group wanted to modify its stance, the words imply that Hamas couldn’t do it. It is sworn, bound by oath, to bring about Israel’s cataclysmic demise. It would be absurd to hope for a change in Hamas’ policy, since such a change would be a violation of its solemn word.

As a marketing catch-phrase, the “sworn to Israel’s destruction” formula was a smashing success. Since July 2005, the Associated Press, probably the leading source of Middle East news for American newspaper readers, has run scores of dispatches describing Hamas as “sworn to the destruction of Israel” (8/13/05, 12/7/05, 12/16/05, 3/12/06) or “sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state” (2/24/06, 3/5/06, 4/9/06) or “sworn to destroy Israel” (1/15/06, among half a dozen others) or “sworn to the Jewish state’s destruction” (7/3/06) or “sworn to the destruction of [Olmert’s] country” (5/26/06), or—most popular—“sworn to Israel’s destruction” (12/27/05, as well as dispatches filed on more than 60 other dates).

Between December 24 and February 28, the New York Times published six news stories and an editorial describing Hamas variously as “a Palestinian party sworn to Israel’s destruction” (1/27/06), a “militant Islamic party sworn to the destruction of Israel” (1/26/06), “an armed group, sworn to the destruction of Israel” (1/25/06) or “an organization that revels in terrorism and is sworn to destroy Israel” (editorial, 1/27/06). The same formulation was used in news articles by the Minneapolis Star Tribune (8/14/05), L.A. Times (1/26/06), Boston Globe (1/27/06), USA Today (2/20/06), Philadelphia Inquirer (2/23/06) and Christian Science Monitor (3/6/06).

On television, the refrain was the same. “Hamas, the group sworn to Israel’s destruction, won a landslide victory,” CNN’s Carol Lin announced (1/28/06). CBS’s Bob Schieffer (1/27/06), interviewing George W. Bush, observed that “of all things, the party that has sworn to destroy Israel wins a majority of the seats in the Palestinian parliament.” “Sworn to the destruction of Israel, terrorism has been their weapon” was how NBC’s Martin Fletcher (1/24/06) described Hamas. And ABC’s Charles Gibson (1/26/06) put it like this: “This is a group that is sworn to the destruction of Israel, will not recognize Israel, says they will not talk to Israel, and says it will not disarm.”

Missed signals

Hamas rally, Bethlehem (cc photo: Soman/Wikimedia)

Hamas rally, Bethlehem (cc photo: Soman/Wikimedia)

There is no need to sugarcoat Hamas’ history of brutal tactics or its bellicose ideology. Its activists continue to rouse their supporters with messianic rhetoric pledging to pursue the battle against Israel until total victory is reached, and in its armed attacks across the Green Line the group has seldom made the slightest effort to distinguish innocent civilians from soldiers. But the characterizations of Hamas’ stance toward Israel quoted above range from incomplete to misleading to flatly wrong.

Hamas’ leaders are not of a single mind. They include both fiery radicals who dismiss any suggestion of co-existence with Israel and moderates whose views differ little from those of Abbas, a Fatah leader who is considered a moderate. But over the months and years preceding January’s elections, the center of gravity within the group’s thinking had unmistakably shifted. Senior officials repeatedly signaled that Hamas is open to changing its policy in favor of a long-term peaceful accommodation with Israel; that it is willing to take concrete steps toward this goal, provided that Israel reciprocates; and that it would seriously consider moving even further given the right political circumstances.

On more than one occasion, Hamas’ chief representative in Lebanon, Usama Hamdan, has outlined a stance toward the conflict with Israel which, according to an ICG report (Enter Hamas, 1/06), “many who study Hamas consider [to be] its emerging consensus.” In an interim agreement, Hamas and Israel would conclude a comprehensive armistice in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders. After a period of confidence-building, a formal agreement could be concluded. “Hamas is clear in terms of [both] the historical solution and an interim solution,” Hamdan said. “We are ready for both: the borders of 1967, a state, elections and [a peace] agreement after ten to fifteen years of building trust.”

Yet in almost every case, the U.S. media failed to broadcast these signals. For instance, four months before the elections, a moderate Hamas candidate representing Nablus, Mohammed Ghazal, told Reuters (9/21/05) that the group could change its 1988 charter calling for Israel’s destruction and that it was open to negotiating with Israel. “The charter is not the Koran,” Ghazal said. “Historically, we believe all Palestine belongs to Palestinians, but we’re talking now about reality, about political solutions. . . . The realities are different.” If Israel reached a stage where it felt able to talk to Hamas, Ghazal said, “I don’t think there will be a problem of negotiating with the Israelis.” (Less than a week after Ghazal’s comments, Israeli soldiers raided his apartment and arrested him—AP, 9/27/05.)

Asked about the charter the following month, a leading Hamas hardliner, Mahmoud Zahar, told Ha’aretz (10/26/05) that “no one is thinking now about changing the charter, but in principle it is not impossible.”

The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune and USA Today all declined to report Ghazal’s comments on amending the charter. (The New York Times briefly noted Zahar’s statement in an article on a different topic—10/27/05.) Yet in subsequent news articles each of these papers again went out of their way to repeat that Hamas’ charter pledges to bring about the destruction of Israel (1/15/06, 1/26/06, 1/29/06, 1/23/06, 1/25/06, 1/16/06).

Meanwhile, for the previous five years, Israel had been governed by Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party, which maintained a charter pledged—one could say “sworn”—to oppose any form of Palestinian self-determination at all, vowing to “impose state sovereignty” over “all parts of the Land of Israel.” But this particular pledge was apparently considered irrelevant: Since the Likud government’s formation in 2001, its charter was never mentioned by five of these six papers. (The one exception: A 2002 Boston Globe article—5/13/02—quoted a far-right Israeli politician who noted that the Likud charter “states there will be no Palestinian state.”)

Two weeks before the elections, Hamas distributed to Palestinian voters its official election platform, which pointedly omitted talk of destroying Israel or restoring all of historic Palestine, calling instead for “an independent state whose capital is Jerusalem.” A Hamas candidate in the Gaza Strip, Gazi Hamad, told the Guardian (1/12/06) that “the manifesto reflected the group’s position of accepting an interim state based on 1967 borders but leaving a final decision on whether to recognize Israel to future generations.” The New York Times (1/29/06) waited until three weeks after the election to mention the platform; it did so, briefly, in an article headlined “Hamas Leader Sees No Change Toward Israelis.”

“Put this choice on Hamas”

The U.S. and Israel quickly formulated a strategy to deal with Hamas’ electoral victory. A front-page New York Times article (2/14/06) sourced to Israeli and Western officials reported that the two countries were “discussing ways to destabilize the Palestinian government so that newly elected Hamas officials will fail and elections will be called again.” The plan was to “starve the Palestinian Authority of money and international connections to the point where, some months from now, its president, Mahmoud Abbas, is compelled to call a new election. The hope is that Palestinians will be so unhappy with life under Hamas that they will return to office a reformed and chastened Fatah movement.”

Officially, of course, Hamas was offered a choice: If it changed its stance toward Israel by agreeing to a specific set of demands, it would be given a chance to succeed. But the specific demands included the immediate and unconditional recognition of Israel as well as acceptance of all previous agreements with Israel signed by Yassir Arafat’s PLO, including George W. Bush’s long-defunct “Road Map for Peace.” Nothing less than these moves—which would require Hamas’ leaders to immediately and publicly renounce 20 years of ideology, under a foreign ultimatum—would be accepted. And they had to be unconditional; Hamas could not demand reciprocity from Israel—a halt to the assassination of its leaders, a general cease-fire, a commitment to a viable Palestinian state or a change in Israel’s settlement policies—in exchange for concessions.

None of this was by accident. As the Times noted, “the officials drafting the plan know that Hamas leaders have repeatedly rejected demands to change and do not expect Hamas to meet them. ‘The point is to put this choice on Hamas’ shoulders,’ a senior Western diplomat said. ‘If they make the wrong choice, all the options lead in a bad direction.’” The strategy was bolstered by the Bush administration’s success in convincing the European Union, which provides most of the Palestinians’ international aid, to sign on to the demands as well. According to Alastair Crooke (Prospect, 6/06), an insider in the E.U.’s Mideast diplomacy, most European officials had grave doubts about the plan, but U.S. pressure and fears of reopening European divisions had left them “trapped into adopting a position from which they lack the leadership or energy to escape.”

In the months after the election, Hamas officials desperately stepped up their messages of willingness to reach a peaceful settlement, deploying a series of trial balloons intended to find the right formulation of words that could somehow satisfy at least parts of the international community—Europe, basically—while preserving a fig-leaf of fealty to Hamas’ historic ideology. The tone and content of these messages varied widely, depending on which Hamas leader happened to be speaking—a reflection of both the party’s diversity of views and its policy of democratic centralism, in which members are permitted to debate strategy publicly until such time as a final position is formally adopted by party leaders.

By spring 2006, it seemed clear that the group was open to almost any solution that did not cross the red line of recognition of Israel by Hamas as a political party. As one Hamas leader (Hamas MP Riad Mustafa, ICG report, 6/06; emphasis added) explained:

I say unambiguously: Hamas does not and never will recognize Israel. Recognition is an act conferred by states, not movements or governments, and Palestine is not a state. Nevertheless, the government’s program calls for the end of the occupation, not the destruction of Israel, and Hamas has proposed ending the occupation and a long-term truce (hudna) to bring peace to this region. That is Hamas’ own position. The government has also recognized President Abbas’ right to conduct political negotiations with Israel. If he were to produce a peace agreement, and if this agreement was endorsed by our national institutions and a popular referendum, then—even if it includes Palestinian recognition of Israel— we would of course accept their verdict. Because respecting the will of the people and their democratic choice is also one of our principles.

“No sign Hamas will budge”

But the U.S. media studiously ignored these messages. For example, after the election, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer (1/29/06) aired a satellite interview with Hamas hardliner Mahmoud Zahar, who was later appointed foreign minister. Interspersed with rambling anti-Israel comments expressed in broken English, Zahar outlined his party’s stance toward a settlement with Israel: “We can accept to establish our independent state on the area before ’67, and we can give [Israel] a long-term hudna. . . . More than that, under certain conditions. . . . And after that, let time heal . . . Give us one or two, 10, 15 years time in order to see what is the real intention of Israel after that.”

The following day (1/30/06), Blitzer re-aired an abridged version of the interview. This time, following a soundbite of Bush demanding that Hamas “support the right of Israel to exist,” Blitzer flatly declared: “There’s no sign Hamas will budge on that issue.” He then ran brief clips from the previous day’s interview, featuring Zahar commenting on everything from homosexuality to Afghanistan to the design of the Israeli flag—everything but the position Zahar had outlined on a peace settlement. The closest Blitzer came to broaching the topic was in this lead-in: “In refusing to back away from the stated Hamas goal of destroying Israel, Al-Zahar pointed to the Israeli flag”—followed by Zahar’s musings on that subject.

In March, Hamas released its official legislative program. The document clearly signaled that Hamas could refer the issue of recognizing Israel to a national referendum. Under the heading “Recognition of Israel,” it stated simply (AFP, 3/11/06): “The question of recognizing Israel is not the jurisdiction of one faction, nor the government, but a decision for the Palestinian people.” Neither the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune nor USA Today mentioned this remarkable position.

The London Observer (4/9/06) reported that Hamas had announced a decision to “abandon its use of suicide bombers . . . in any future confrontations with Israel.” Yihiyeh Musa, a Hamas legislator, told the paper that Hamas had entered a “new era”: “The suicide bombings happened in an exceptional period and they have now stopped,” he said. “They came to an end as a change of belief.”

Khaled Meshal, Hamas’ unofficial leader and a staunch hardliner based in Damascus, gave an interview to the Paris daily Le Figaro (3/29/06) that included this statement: “If Israel withdraws from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, recognizes the refugees’ right of return, and dismantles the new wall, I can guarantee you that Hamas, and the whole Palestinian people behind it, will be ready to take serious steps, based on justice and equality, towards a permanent peace with the Israelis.” No U.S. news outlet in the Nexis database reported his comments.

The Prisoners’ Initiative

That spring, Palestinian society was poised on a knife’s edge. International aid to the Palestinian National Authority had all but dried up, leaving civil servants without salaries and essential services grinding to a halt. Even more ominously, street clashes between Fatah and Hamas gunmen, stemming largely from political disputes over control of the security forces, threatened to plunge the territories into civil war. And Israel continued to carry out targeted assassinations, raids, house demolitions and the shelling of areas in Gaza, which it often justified as a response to sporadic rocket attacks by Palestinian militants.

Through intermediaries, Hamas offered Israel “an unofficial understanding on ‘quiet in return for quiet,’” in which “Hamas would pledge not to carry out any violent actions against Israel and would even prevent other Palestinian organizations from doing so,” in return for the same treatment from Israel. It even offered to arrange the deal in such a way as to give the impression that this was a unilateral Hamas move, “should Israel not want to appear to be maintaining contact with a body that calls for its destruction.” But as Ha’aretz’s defense correspondent Ze’ev Schiff reported (4/7/06), Israeli officials called the offer a “trick” and rejected it.

To make matters worse, on April 17, a suicide bomber from Islamic Jihad, a particularly radical faction that had rejected the cease-fire that Hamas had agreed to, killed nine Israelis at a falafel restaurant in Tel Aviv. Rather than condemning the bombing, a Hamas Interior Ministry spokesman called it “a direct result of the policy of the occupation” (AP, 4/17/06), and a spokesperson for the party labeled it a “legal and natural reaction to the Israeli crimes” (New York Times, 4/18/06)—statements picked up and disseminated widely in U.S. media, further damaging Hamas’ standing internationally. The New York Times highlighted the comments in its front-page headline the following day (“Suicide Bombing in Israel Kills 9; Hamas Approves,” 4/18/06), proving that the paper sometimes does consider Hamas’ words newsworthy.

In the eyes of many Palestinian observers, this crisis could not be resolved without some kind of joint program between Fatah and Hamas. For years, civil society organizations and younger politicians had urged the two groups to agree on a power-sharing formula and adopt a common platform for negotiations with Israel. Not only would this lessen the chances of civil conflict, they argued, but it would reduce the risk that the party in opposition would carry out military operations against Israel for the purpose of weakening the party in power—an all-too-frequent phenomenon since the Oslo Accords were signed. Indeed, in a reversal of roles, elements connected to Fatah had been firing Qassam rockets into Israel since Hamas’ election victory “in order to embarrass the Hamas government and prevent it from stabilizing” (Ha’aretz, 4/10/06).

On May 11, a prominent group of Hamas, Fatah and other Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, enjoying enormous prestige and led by Palestine’s most popular political figure, Marwan Barghouti, released a document laying out principles for such a joint program. In addition to calling for a national unity government and the unification of militias, it demanded “concentrating the resistance in territories occupied in 1967”; negotiations with Israel led by Abbas, leading to an independent state within the 1967 borders; and a unified Palestinian “political discourse” based on “the Palestinian national consensus program,” “Arab legitimacy,” and “international resolutions fair to our people”—all code-words for a two-state solution in which Israel would be recognized (ICG report, 6/06).

Two weeks later (5/25/06), Abbas stunned observers by issuing an ultimatum to Hamas: If the Islamist group did not accept the Prisoners’ Initiative in its entirety by a specified deadline, he would call a national referendum on it. Some Hamas leaders responded with outrage, accusing the Palestinian president of trying to bring down the elected government. Others welcomed a referendum. Street fighting escalated and a fierce debate was sparked within the party. But quietly, the two groups embarked on talks over the document.

The unrecognized recognition

As the entire world now knows, on June 25, militants from Hamas and two other groups crossed the border into Israel and captured a soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, in a raid that left two Israeli soldiers dead. Israel responded with a massive invasion of Gaza. What is much less known—because it was barely reported—is that two days later, after weeks of secret negotiations, Hamas stunned observers with an announcement that it had reached an agreement with Abbas to formally accept the Prisoners’ Initiative, a major change in the group’s stance toward Israel.

There has been enormous speculation about what connection, if any, linked the two events. The facts, inevitably, are murky. Israeli leaks suggested a split in Hamas, with Khaled Meshal using his influence over Hamas’ military wing to sabotage an initiative of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas moderate (AP, 6/26/06). Hamas sources claimed the raid was unauthorized, the work of a rogue faction of the group’s military wing that no longer took Hamas’ orders due to unpaid wages and political disputes (Ha’aretz, 6/27/06).

What is clear is that the U.S. media, having studiously ignored Hamas’ internal debate for years, found itself unable to report coherently on the Prisoners’ Initiative. It was treated as major news when Abbas, a favorite of the U.S. and of much of the media, first issued his ultimatum demanding that the Islamists accept the document. Much of the media praised it as a clever ploy to bring down the Hamas government by forcing it to recognize the Jewish state—which Hamas, of course, could never do. So despite the fact that the document recognized Israel only implicitly (and fell far short of the Bush administration’s demands), reporters focused—with good reason—on the clear two-state spirit of the text, rather than the letter.

Yet once the group had accepted the plan, much of the media could not bring itself to acknowledge that Hamas—so recently “sworn to Israel’s destruction,” in the journalistic lexicon—had now taken a major step towards acceptance of Israel.

Consider the Associated Press’ coverage. When Abbas first challenged Hamas to accept the Prisoners’ Initiative, the AP described the plan as “accepting a Palestinian state alongside Israel”; it would “give implicit recognition to Israel by accepting a Palestinian state on land occupied by Israel in 1967” (5/25/06). It endorsed “mutual recognition and a two-state solution with Israel” (6/4/06); it called for “recognizing Israel” (6/18/06), “implicitly recognizing Israel” (6/19/06) or “tacitly recognizing Israel” (6/24/06). When Hamas announced it had adopted the Prisoners’ Initiative, AP reported that the group had signed on to “a plan that implicitly recognizes Israel” (6/27/06).

Two days later, with no explanation, AP abruptly reverted to the old line. As Israel prepared for a massive invasion of Gaza, suddenly Hamas was once again “sworn to Israel’s destruction” (6/29, 6/30, 7/17, 7/18), “does not recognize the Jewish state” (7/11/06) and “refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist” (6/28, 7/10, 7/11).

Likewise, the New York Times had called the Prisoners’ Initiative “a proposal for a Palestinian state that would recognize Israel” (5/26/06), a “Palestinian state alongside an Israel that retreats to its pre-1967 boundaries” (5/27/06); it was an accord that “would move Hamas closer to recognition of Israel—a significant change” (6/28/06).

But once Hamas accepted the deal, and Israel began its assault on Gaza, Hamas was once again “pledged to destroy Israel” (7/19/06) and U.S. officials were still hoping it would “respond to the responsibilities of elected leadership and moderate its rejection of Israel” (7/13/06).

In the meantime, Palestinians were still dying. And Israel still had no peace.

Suppressing messages

Journalists who cover the Middle East know very well that, for good or ill, the international media have always played a major part in the region’s conflicts. States and armies use the media, not only for public relations, but to broadcast diplomatic signals that they hope will catch the attention of world leaders—or at least world audiences. When signals are heard, they can be reciprocated—and at times they can lead to breakthroughs. Stances can shift, ideologies can thaw, hardliners can be isolated, positions can be moderated.

When signals are ignored, however, the only possible result is further war; offers are abandoned and the prospect of change disappears. Journalists who choose to suppress these messages—preferring to take the “guidance” of official sources who point insistently to the other side’s warlike “vows,” “pledges” and “oaths”—can then take empty satisfaction from seeing to it that no pledges will be broken.