Monday, December 10, 2012

What to Make of Khaled Meshal?

On his triumphant return to Gaza several days ago, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal proclaimed that Hamas would never recognize Israel or abandon its claim to all Israeli territory: "Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on an inch of the land.” There can be no doubt that Meshal’s demagogic but empty rhetoric was shocking, irresponsible, and profoundly stupid. Nor can there be any doubt that he has handed Netanyahu and the Israeli right precisely the excuse they want to continue the policy of no negotiations with Hamas—or even, in quite imaginable circumstances, to launch a massive attack on Gaza to destroy Hamas.

Nonetheless, for a number of reasons Meshal’s buffoonery does not justify Israel’s refusal to explore the possibility of a negotiated two-state negotiated settlement with Hamas—or perhaps even with Meshal himself. First, some of what Meshal said was ambiguous, and probably deliberately so: “We will never recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation and therefore there is no legitimacy for Israel, no matter how long it will take." That is, Meshal could be read as saying that Hamas would never recognize the legitimacy of Israel as long as the occupation continues, in which case he was still leaving open the possibility of a negotiated end to the conflict if Israel agrees to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

In fact, there are a number of strong indications that Meshal has been steadily moving, however inconsistently, towards a negotiated settlement. I provide the evidence for this in my extended discussion of the evolution of Hamas in general and Meshal in particular in my recent International Security article on the 2008-09 Israeli attack on Gaza (

Here I can only summarize:

* According to ex-Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, as early as 1997 King Hussein of Jordan conveyed to Israel an offer from Khaled Meshal, then the chief Hamas leader, to reach an understanding on a ceasefire to last 30 years. Israel not only ignored the offer, but a few days later, Israeli operatives tried to assassinate Meshal in Jordan.

*In the past decade Hamas has repeatedly proposed extended ceasefires with Israel, and in fact several of them have gone into effect; it has been Israel rather than Hamas that has broken these truces. In particular, in June 2008 Hamas and the Israeli government agreed to a six month ceasefire, following which—as was the case in previous ceasefires-- Hamas ended its rocket attacks on Israel. Moreover, even though Israel continued its economic blockade of Gaza and its assassinations of Islamic Jihad activists, Hamas not only maintained the ceasefire but successfully prevented most attempts by Islamic Jihad to retaliate against Israel.

*Israel broke the ceasefire on November 4 2008, attacking a Gazan tunnel and killing six Hamas men. This time Hamas retaliated, firing rockets into southern Israel; even so, according to Israeli newspapers, on December 23 the head of Shin Bet told the Israeli cabinet that Hamas was prepared to continue an indefinite truce if Israel ended the blockade and the assassinations. Israel refused these terms, and on December 27 it launched Operation Cast Lead.

Beyond the ceasefires, for a number of years there have been solid indications that Hamas, including Khalid Meshal, has been gradually moving towards—in fits and starts, to be sure-- abandoning its extremist positions and accepting the two state principle. The evidence is considerable; here I will mention only some of it.

In January 2006, shortly after Hamas won the parliamentary elections in Gaza, it sought to convey a message to Israel, through the U.S. government, offering Israel a truce for many years in exchange for a compromise political settlement; neither Israel nor the Bush administration replied to this and additional overtures. Later in 2006 Hamas began to go public with its new position. For example, in May Gazan prime minister Haniyeh told Haaretz that the Hamas government would agree to agree to a long-term truce with Israel if it withdrew to the 1967 lines; a few months later Haniyeh said that “We have no problem with a sovereign Palestinian state over all of our lands within the 1967 borders, living in calm.”

Meshal did not take a harder line than Haniyeh or other Hamas leaders. In late 2006 he said that Hamas could not oppose the unified Arab stance expressed in an Arab League summit conference, which offered Israel full recognition and normalized relations in exchange for a full Israel withdrawal from the occupied territories and a solution to the refugee problem. In April 2008 Meshal went further, stating that Hamas would end its resistance activities if Israel ended the occupation and accepted a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 border.

Thus, until the recent Israeli attack on Gaza, the general direction of both Hamas in general and Meshal in particular was to abandon--in practice, though not in some of its rhetoric--its goal of “regaining all of Palestine.” Consequently, a number of prominent members of the Israeli security establishment, including Ephraim Halevy, the former head of Mossad and the national security adviser in Ariel Sharon’s 2002-03 government and Ami Ayalon, a former head of Shin Bet, and, argued strongly for negotiations with Hamas. In particular, Halevy wrote that even Hamas militants had recognized that their “ideological goal is not attainable and…. are ready and willing to see the establishment of a Palestinian state in the temporary borders of 1967.…They know that the moment a Palestinian state is established with their cooperation, they will be obligated to change the rules of the game: they will have to adopt a path that could lead them far from their original ideological goals.”

What conclusions, then, can be drawn from the latest Meshal rhetoric? In fact, there are a number of reasonable possibilities. First, Meshal has often said different things to different audiences, so there is no reason to assume that his impassioned speech to his Gazan followers and militants represents the “real” Meshal, as opposed to his past statements—public and private—indicating that in practice he will accept a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Of course, a second possibility is simply that Meshal has again changed his mind--especially in light of the latest Israeli attack on Gaza--from fiery and uncompromising militant, to a much realistic position, and now back again to fanaticism. If so, though, then his position could change yet again--especially, of course, in response to an Israeli offer to negotiate with Hamas.

Third, even if the latest Meshal posture is the real one and will never change, it doesn’t follow that there is no one in Hamas for Israel to talk to. There are other Hamas political and military leaders, some of whom might be more moderate than Meshal, if only they had a moderate Israel that was willing to negotiate with them.

In short, there is no basis to the claim that the Meshal speech proves that negotiations with Hamas are impossible. If anything, precisely the opposite is the case: it is only by an Israeli offer to negotiate on the basis of a two-state settlement that the Hamas position can be tested. Of course, the real reason for Israel’s refusal to negotiate even with the Palestinian government in the West Bank, let alone with Hamas, is that it is the Israelis rather than most Palestinians who are opposed to a genuine compromise settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Steve Kowit said...

It seems perfectly logical, if someone has stolen your property, to insist that the entirety of your property be returned. Israel stole the entirety of the Palestinian homeland. Plan Dalet in 1948 stole, through a brutal, murderous ethnic cleansing, 78% of the Palestinian homeland. American "liberal Zionists" often ignore this discomforting fact and promote a Palestinian statelet (not by any means an actual state with full sovereignty) on a small piece of the stolen land-- on land Israel stole in and since 1967. This allows Israel to keep all the land it stole in 1948 for its racist state. But that property does not belong to the people who stole it, however much liberal Zionists wish to ignore the fact of the 1948 Nakba and theft. Every inch of racist Israel was stolen; every inch belongs to the Palestinian people.

Jerome Slater said...

Even if I agreed with every word of your history--which I don't--it wouldn't change the fact that the Palestinians have no chance whatever to regain "every inch" of Palestine, and therefore that Meshal's rhetoric is highly irresponsible in terms of its most probable consequences.

ed said...

Professor Slater, to some I would extent agree with the narrative stated by Steve Kowit, though not through his lense or with his rhetoric, but instead through the eyes of historians like Ilan Pappe, Avi Shlaim and Norman Finkelstein, and also as articulated by Miko Peled in his marvelous book, "The General's Son", (an essential read), as well as his blog and Youtube lectures. After hearing about, and then reading the newspaper accounts of, Meshal's speech, I could see many academics - including those former CIA intelligence analysts (such as Paul Pillar)- who have shown good will and acted as honest reporters and sympathetic advocates of the Palestinian condition and cause, cringe and slide a little lower in their chairs. I also expected it to be mistranslated, and to some extent it was, with the word "kill" originally reported in the Guardian before it was corrected to read "fight"

I think the statement was singularly unhelpful with its international, especially European and American, readers, and if taken at face value, which the Israelis are arguing for, would be enough for the Israelis to cite to avoid entering into meaningful peace negotiations. But when I look at this in a broader and longer term context, I am less upset. The bottom line is that Bibi Netanyahu, son of Binyamin, who was Jabotinsky's private secretary, has never been honest about engaging in good faith negotiations, and would never allow a sovereign Palestinian state to come into being, regardless of how small it might be. That is the reality, and his agenda for the land is to "take it all and then some", including the Golan in Syria, and control over the Gaza's EEZ in the Eastern Mediterranean. Indeed, he has been working toward energy and economic independence for a long time, and has had imperial ambitions all over the world including in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Southern Sudan, the U.S. (of course) and many other countries, even Cuba, where Rafael Eitan has spearheaded a number of investments.

So, while I myself might wish to see a two state solution based on the 1967 borders (with or without adjustments), and that over time could visualize a federated state with some regional integration, and incredible prosperity for all of the peoples of the region, I don't see it as possible (whatever Meshal might say), given the attitude of the Likud government, Netanyahu's agenda and vision for the land and littoral rights, and the hardening attitude of the Israeli people and its younger generation, the intractability of the U.S. government, and the ignorance of the American public. Nothing will change under either the Republicans or Democrats, and I don't see Obama seizing a "Nixon China" 'moment' or 'opportunity' with Israel on this issue (as opposed to possibly with Iran- although he does not realize how integral the Palestinian cause and the future of Jerusalem is to the Iranian leadership). He and his advisors simply don't have the vision, or inclination, or fortitude to pull it off, and the establishment within the American Jewish community, which owns the overwhelming majority of the resources of that community, will still stand by the Likud, no matter what Israel may do to the Palestinians.

My sense is that we are moving inexorably toward a one-state solution, which will go through more violent growing pains, including even a dangerous fascism in Israel and even possibly an attempt at a "final solution" (this time of the Palestinians), before the demographics make it impossible for Israel not to evolve into a single more or less democratic and secular state. Not now, not for decades, but I don't see how Israel will be able to avoid it 50 years from now, and I don't think you have to be a Kissinger to imagine it.

Steve Kowit said...

The history I summarized is precisely correct. But Americans, even those who are somewhat progressive, wince at being told a truth that has been strenuously denied for well over half a century. The entire land of Palestine was stolen; not an inch of it by right belongs to the people who stole it. That might be a horrifying truth but it is the truth nonetheless. Should the Palestinian people fight for the 22% statelet that won't be forthcoming or should they tell the world the truth: that the entire land of Palestine belongs to the Palestinian people? "Demanding" the return of the entirety of Palestine is probably smarter politics in the first place. A one-state solution with the right of return and equal rights for all citizens might well end in a state controlled or at least dominated by Palestinians in the long run. But even if not, it means they will have a major voice in the new Palestinian democratic state that would replace racist Israel.

Jerome Slater said...

Steve Kowit: "A one-state solution with the right of return and equal rights for all citizens might well end in a state controlled or at least dominated by Palestinians in the long run."

Perhaps you think that the Israelis haven't noticed this? You have just provided the refutation of your own argument.

Since the one-state "solution" will never happen, the Palestinians would be wise to focus on dividing Palestine into two states. To be sure, the chances of a two-state settlement are small, but for precisely that reason Meshal and those of like mind, like you, would be well advised not to kill all prospects by impossible "demands" whose only effect will be to harden
Israeli intransigence.