By Carlton Cobb, Team Coordinator for CNI’s Fall 2009 ‘political pilgrimage’
During a two-hour meeting with the CNI delegation in Damascus yesterday, the head of Hamas’s political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, told us:
It is not just to ask Palestinians to amend their charters without real change on the ground. Let us get our rights. Then we could discuss many issues, such as changing the Hamas and PLO charters or relations with Israel.
This came in response to a question posed by CNI Executive Director Helena Cobban, who asked him whether, in the context of Hamas winning the kind of peace agreement it seeks, the organization might consider amending its 1988 founding charter.
In the same round of questioning, Cobban had also asked whether Hamas would consider that the agreement it seeks, which is one based on Israel’s return to within its borders of June 4, 1967, would be understood by Hamas as one that ends the Palestinians’ decades-long conflict with Israel.
In other words, what is written in the Hamas charter seems under some circumstances to be negotiable. Meshaal’s answer was significant because it reflects a possible shift in Hamas strategy. The Hamas charter calls for a Palestinian state that replaces Israel and includes all of British Mandate-era Palestine.
Most Israelis equate this position with the destruction by force of Israel and, by extension, Jews. They argue that the Hamas position amounts to a call for a second Jewish Holocaust.
Meshaal’s statement demonstrated a willingness to accept Israel in the context of a comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hamas, and the Palestine Liberation Organization before it, had previously emphasized the goal of replacing Israel by refusing to use the word “Israel” and instead using the term “Zionist entity,” implying that the state is illegitimate and temporary. Throughout our meeting, however, Meshaal chose to use the word “Israel” and almost never used the word “Zionism” or “Zionist.”
The last part of the statement quoted above demonstrates an implicit recognition of Israel, one of the three conditions that Israel and the Quartet have imposed on Hamas before agreeing to recognize it.
It is important to note that the PLO also held the same position of non-recognition of Israel for many years and only agreed to amend its charter under significant American and Israeli pressure. Meshaal noted that despite revising its position in 1996, the PLO still has not achieved a Palestinian state and, in fact, lost popularity among Palestinians because of it.
A recurring theme of Meshaal’s answers was the difference between words and action. He downplayed the significance of the Hamas charter by pointing out that it was written in the “early days” of Hamas. Over time, Hamas has developed its political agenda, by agreeing to join the 2006 Palestinian Legsilative Council elections and accepting a solution to the conflict based on the 1967 borders. Hamas actions, he argued, should be more important than what is written in its charter.
He likewise argued that U.S. President Barack Obama should be judged by his actions and not his words. He expressed support for Obama’s speech in Cairo and said that Hamas was “ready to cooperate with Obama,” but that Obama’s Cairo speech was a “mirage” that had yet to become real. In his assessment, Meshaal felt that pressure from Israel and the “Israeli lobby” in the United States had caused Obama to back down far faster than Hamas had expected.