If you want to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a nutshell, just look at the New York Times editorial pages of November 1, 2006. Amazingly enough, the Times ran a full op-ed column by a top official of the Hamas party, Ahmed Yousef, a senior adviser to Palestinian prime minister Ismail Haniyeh. Yousef repeated the same offer Hamas has been making for years. In Arabic it's called a "hudna."
As Yousef explained, a hudna is "a period of nonwar but only partial resolution of a conflict." It "extends beyond the Western concept of a cease-fire and obliges the parties to use the period to seek a permanent, nonviolent resolution to their differences." A hudna "affords the opportunity to humanize one's opponents and understand their position with the goal of resolving the intertribal or international dispute."
"This offer of hudna is no ruse, as some assert, to strengthen our military machine," Yousef pleaded. And he offered several reasons to believe it: "A hudna is recognized in Islamic jurisprudence as a legitimate and binding contract. . It goes back to the Koran itself. . When Hamas gives its word to an international agreement, it does so in the name of God and will therefore keep its word. Hamas has honored its previous cease-fires, as Israelis grudgingly note with the oft-heard words, 'At least with Hamas they mean what they say.'"
But what do they say and mean? In Israel, opinions differ.
To offset its radical move of giving op-ed space to Hamas, the Times published, on the very same day, a letter from the rising star of Israel's far right, Minister of Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman. He claimed to know what Hamas says and means: Their declared aim is "to eradicate all Jews from Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem" - in other words, to destroy the Jewish State - "and until they achieve that goal, they will not lay down their arms."
At the other end of Israel's political spectrum, there are Israelis who have been urging their government for years to accept the long-standing Hamas offer of hudna. They are outraged to see a superhawk like Lieberman get the portfolio of Minister of Strategic Affairs. Zehava Galon, a leader of the left wing bloc in Israel's parliament, called the appointment "a terrorist attack on democracy."
So the Times gave space to both ends of the political spectrum. That seems balanced. But the next day, in its letters column, the Times ran four letters in response. Though one applauded the Hamas offered, three denounced it, following Lieberman's lead, as bald-faced lying propaganda from a group dedicated to destroying Israel.
For those who think actions speak louder than words, the Times also ran a news story about a major Israeli assault on Gaza that day, killing 8 and wounding over 40. And it reported on a cabinet meeting that would consider Lieberman's plea much harsher measures against the Palestinians.
For now, the Israeli cabinet has decided to hold off on harsher treatment, sticking to the present course, which has killed some 250 Gazans in the last four months (while losing only three of their own soldiers). But they can count on the present course scuttling any chance for hudna and peace talks.
This whole scenario has been played out before. Back in June Hamas leaders offered a hudna. On the same day, the Israelis began the renewed military action in Gaza which continues to this very day. Israeli leaders surely understood then what they still know now. Their policy has an absolutely predictable outcome. The angry Palestinian public will reject its own leaders' plans for peace.
Indeed, the Hamas leaders have had to trim back their offer. In June, they offered a hudna that would automatically be renewed for an indefinite time. Now they are limiting it to 10 years. But in Middle Eastern politics, 10 years is close to an eternity.
And Hamas leaders cannot say publicly the most important fact: In Muslim law, a hudna is offered only to a non-Muslim party that controls its own non-Muslim land. In other words (as I have noted in a previous column) by using the word "hudna," Hamas leaders are implicitly recognizing the permanent existence of Israel. Ahmed Yousef himself wrote that the hudna would involve "an immediate end to the occupation and to initiate a period of peaceful coexistence." That sounds like a veiled promise of a two-state solution.
As Yousef told the British newspaper, The Guardian, Hamas leaders can't say that publicly because "there is no support in Gaza and the West Bank for recognition of Israel, and he could not propose such a change at present. 'If I did, I would end up like Michael Collins,' he said, referring to the Irish republican leader assassinated in 1922 for accepting an Irish two-state solution. 'We need to change people's minds on how they look at the conflict, and it will take time. The climate will change if we have a period of peace.'"
But right-wing Israelis, who get most of the space in the Times' letters to the editor, simply won't believe that. They won't recognize the risk that Hamas leaders are taking by getting ahead of their own public on the path to peace. They would rather hold on to their unshakable faith that Jews are surrounded by anti-semitic enemies bent only on destroying them.
Sadly, opinion polls show that fear-based right-wing view growing among Israeli Jews. They would rather hold on to their self-image as helpless victims than take any meaningful step toward peace.
And the Israeli public relations machinery is working as effectively as ever to shape U.S. public opinion, too. The latest Hamas offer of hudna, like the ones before it, have been totally ignored in the U.S. media. If Israel had offered a radical new peace plan for the Middle East, it would have been headline news everywhere. But Ahmed Yousef's proposal got absolutely zero coverage. So very few Americans are even aware that the Palestinians have once again tried to push open the door to peace, only to have the Israelis slam it shut again.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the author of "American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea" and "Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin." Email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.