It looks like the topelected officials in the Palestinian Hamas party are signaling that they accept Israel's right to exist. Last week the highest-ranking Hamas leader, Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, told Israel's most prestigious newspaper, Ha'aretz: "If Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders, peace will prevail and we will implement a cease-fire [hudna] for many years."
A hudna is more than just a "cease-fire." An erudite article in the Encyclopedia of Islam tells us that "hudna in Islamic law is equivalent to 'international treaty' in modern terminology. Its object is to suspend the legal effects of hostilities and to provide the prerequisite conditions of peace between Muslims and non-Muslims, without the latter's territory becoming part of dar al-Islam.'"
Those last words are the most important. The devout traditionalists of Hamas take Islamic law seriously. They know that the law divides the whole world into two categories: dar al-Islam, the territory ruled by Muslims, and dar al-harb, the rest of the world. For centuries, the land that became Israel was part of dar al-Islam. Only in 1948, when Israel declared its independence, was it claimed by dar al-harb. That's a big part of what galls Muslim traditionalists.
If Hamas is now willing to offer a hudna, it means not merely accepting the existence of Israel (you can't negotiate with a country that doesn't exist), but treating Israel as part of dar al-harb. As the Encyclopedia explains, Muslims don't make a hudna treaty with anyone inside the dar al-Islam. It all goes back to the example set by Mohammed, as recorded in the Quran. He made treaties with Jewish communities who came under Muslim rule. But they are not called hudna. By offering a hudna, Prime Minister Haniyeh is implying that he'll accept the land inside Israel's 1967 borders as gone from Muslim rule for good.
Israel does not demand "diplomatic recognition" from the Palestinians. It demands a public promise that the Palestinians will always accept Israel as a state with a Jewish majority. That is, always was, and always will be the crucial issue for Israel's government and for most Israeli Jews. The hudna offer seems to carry that promise.
Haniyeh is not alone. Other Hamas government officials echoed his conciliatory talk in a clearly coordinated peace offensive, timed to coincide with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's visit to Washington. Transportation Minister Ziad Zaza described the hudna as "the cease-fire that will be renewed automatically each time."
For politicians guided by Muslim law, that's a crucial point. A hudna is always agreed on for a temporary period. Critics of Hamas might seize on that to see the offer as a trick-a way to give Hamas breathing time to build up its strength for more attacks on Israel. The promise of an automatically self-renewing hudna is meant to scotch that suspicion. It's another sign that Hamas is moving toward accepting a Jewish majority state within the 1967 borders.
Hamas has been under tremendous international pressure to make this shift. But the real turning point was publication of the "prisoners' document," a peace plan developed by members of the rival Hamas and Fatah parties. The Israelis took these two sets of prisoners, who normally might not talk to each other, and did them the favor of throwing them together in the same prison. That gave them the time and space to develop a common vision of a Palestinian state. It would occupy the whole of the West Bank and Gaza, devoid of Israeli settlements, with its capital in East Jerusalem, living peacefully side by side with a Jewish state.
Ha'aretz reported Haniyeh's first tentative response that the plan "must be studied further, but it contains worthy principles to which agreement is possible." Like any elected official, he has his finger up to the political wind. Recent polls show that a huge majority of Palestinians would support the plan.
Hamas leaders can't publicly embrace the plan yet, because they don't want to split apart their party. Some powerful figures in Hamas don't accept it, or the hudna idea. Haniyeh acknowledged that when he told Ha'aretz journalist Danny Rubenstein: "Leave Hamas aside now -- I am speaking to you as the leader of the Palestinian government, the government of all the Palestinians, and not as the leader of a movement."
Still, as a European diplomat told the Jerusalem Post, "it appears that Haniyeh realizes the importance of devising a new style and content and ideology to deal with the new situation. We realize how hard it is for a guy elected on a radical platform to steer his constituency toward accepting what for them is heresy. This is significant because he said it on the record and can't take it back."
Even the supposed hard-liners who run the Hamas party from their exile in Syria may be softening. "Hamas has not and will not negotiate (with Israel)," Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy head of Hamas' political bureau, told the Associated Press. But "he said his group would not oppose talks between Israel and Abbas." That's probably the compromise in the works. "There is an idea among Palestinians to give Abu Mazen [Abbas] a chance, if it works why not?" said Deputy Prime Minister Nasser Shaer, the top Hamas government official in the West Bank. He talked about "a national task force that would support negotiations with Israel."
If Abbas heads the negotiating team, Hamas can effectively be part of the talks without officially recognizing Israel's right to exist. In fact, Abbas' threat to put the "prisoner's document" to a popular referendum may be part of the compromise. It was reported here as a power play to undermine Hamas, and the Hamas leaders in Syria have publicly rejected it. But it may be their way of getting the plan onto the negotiating table without any explicit endorsement. They can say that Abbas forced their hand and their elected officials had no choice but to accede.
Perhaps that's why some Hamas officials, like parliament speaker Aziz Dweik, supported the idea. "Returning to the people is one of the most important principles in democracy," Dweik said. "The 'prisoners' document' is a good basis for dialogue." Hamas and Fatah leaders are now in talks to work out a common position. Early reports from those talks have both sides reporting progress.
But what happens next will be determined less in the West Bank and Gaza than in Jerusalem and Washington. The Hamas officials are doing what any government might do-using a peace offensive as a test of the other side's willingness to reciprocate. Cabinet Secretary Ghazi Hamad publicly affirmed the offer of a hudna and held out the possibility of even more: "With time we will suit our positions to reality and change." But, he warned, "under no circumstances will we do so under the pressure of a siege and only to get money." Hamas legislator Mahmoud Ramahi rightly complained that so far Hamas was "not being offered anything in return" for recognizing Israel. All it gets is continuing harsh occupation and tightening financial screws.
This is a tragic mistake on Israel's part, as a few influential voices in Israel have already made clear. Former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy was the first senior Israeli security official to propose that Israel and Hamas should reach an understanding based on their mutual desire for a long-term truce.
In Ha'aretz last week, several analysts expressed the same view. Danny Rubenstein noted that you don't have to love the Palestinians to see the value of their peace moves: "Those who are not asking for any favors from the Palestinians -- who don't care if they recognize Israel and will be satisfied if the Palestinians get used to coexistence without violence -- should adopt a positive attitude toward Haniyeh and his stance."
Gideon Samet worried that Israel is "missing a window of opportunity" because the "prisoners' document" was "brushed aside by Jerusalem as a feeble trick." Gideon Levy urged that the hudna offer "should have sparked a wave of positive reactions from Jerusalem, just like the 'prisoners' document.' But Jerusalem's ear as usual is blocked to any sound that might advance the peace process." What the Israelis are offering is merely "a plan to perpetuate the occupation, only under conditions more convenient for Israel. Moreover, at the end of the convergence plan, if it is ever executed, even more settlers will live in the occupied territories than live there now."
And George W. Bush largely supports Olmert's demand that the Palestinians accept his plan or continue to suffer dire consequences. Levy rightly described the two leaders as "bullies who think they are allowed what most of the world is forbidden. Why? Because they are strong." More precisely, they are bullies because they want to look strong. Their chief aim is to create an image of overwhelming power, in order to mask their own deep-seated insecurities. The terror they are fighting comes not from beyond their borders, but from inside their own hearts and minds.
When it comes to military power, Israel is incomparably stronger than Palestine. But all that military strength can't stop angry individuals from slipping into Israel to set off deadly bombs. Now Israelis and the Bush administration must be strong enough to overcome their fears, their stubbornness, and their pride in military power. They must see that it's up to them to decide which way to encourage the Palestinian debate.
The Palestinians have pride, too. They want to be treated as equal negotiating partners with equal rights. If Israel and the U.S. expect military and financial pressure to force Hamas to capitulate to an unjust peace, they are sadly mistaken. Indeed, a Ha'aretz editorial noted, the Israeli government's "siege on the Hamas government is not weakening it. On the contrary, it is boosting support for it." As Gideon Samet wrote, it's now up to the Israelis (and, he might have added, their patrons in Washington). There is new reason for hope. But if the Israeli government "sinks into the destructive, meaningless routines that characterized its predecessors, the rest of the decade will turn into a disaster zone."