Top Hamas official Mousa Abu Marzouk gave an interview to the Forward – and the more I read that sentence, the funnier it seems – in which he staked out a number of hardline positions to the right of his rival Khaled Meshaal. Most importantly, he said that any agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Israel will be considered a temporary hudna rather than a permanent peace treaty once Hamas is in power, and that he and his organization would feel free to unilaterally modify any deals that were previously struck. He also reiterated his position that Hamas would never recognize Israel, nor will it accept the Quartet’s conditions for negotiations. None of this, of course, is at all surprising.
While there will undoubtedly be much ink spilled over the fact that Abu Marzouk is pushing for a hudna rather than eternal armed conflict, the contents of the interview do not provide cause for optimism. Abu Marzouk implied that a temporary truce would not be a confidence building measure leading toward negotiations but an opportunity for Hamas to build up its capabilities without being hassled. He also scorned the idea that armed resistance should be abandoned in favor of mass non-violent resistance, and gave conflicting signals over the issue of killing civilians, defending past attacks on Israelis but then saying that targeting civilians is not Hamas policy. In addition, he disavowed the notion that Jews everywhere are responsible for anything that Israel does and tacitly acknowledged the Holocaust (“If you look carefully at what happened to the Jews in Moscow or Madrid, in Spain or in Germany or Poland, that’s very bad…. Anyone who historically his father or grandfather did something like that [to the Jews], he should be ashamed.”).
Evidence of moderation on targeting civilians, absence of Holocaust denial, giving an interview to a Jewish newspaper…I’m not really buying it. This interview is a classic example of Abu Marzouk saying a bunch of things to appeal to a Western audience without giving in on the important stuff. The only question that actually matters is whether Hamas will honor PA agreements, because given the attempt at a unity deal between it and Fatah and the possibility that it may one day soon control the PA, Hamas has to be trusted to make credible commitments. If Abu Marzouk is to be believed, Hamas cannot be trusted on that score. Netanyahu gets plenty of flack for not actually wanting to negotiate a deal that the Palestinians will be able to accept, but with all of the Fatah infighting and now a clear statement from one of Hamas’s top three officials that it won’t abide by any deals anyway, what’s the point of the entire peace process exercise? I think that Israel needs to get out of the West Bank and establish a Palestinian state, but it is madness to think that it is only the Israeli side that is obstructing such an outcome.
Meshaal’s position as political director is not assured, and Abu Marzouk’s tacking to the right on the question of accepting a permanent treaty – something that Meshaal has said he is willing to do following a Palestinian referendum – has got to be seen as campaign maneuvering. Nobody really knows what is going on in Hamas internal politics and what the Shura Council’s members are thinking, but to give an interview like this that is designed to attract attention from a number of distinct audiences says a couple of things. First, Abu Marzouk thinks that Meshaal is playing to public opinion with his embrace of the Arab Spring rather than worrying about the Shura Council, which is the only audience that matters in terms of deciding who is going to lead Hamas. His staking out positions that conflict with Meshaal’s is deliberate, and he must suspect that a more hardline position is going to be popular with the folks who matter. Second, he thinks that he stands a good chance of beating Meshaal and is already looking ahead to convincing Western audiences that he should not be shunned, which explains his position on Jews vs. Israelis and sympathy for Holocaust (and pogrom and Inquisition) victims. Expressing moderation on those issues is not going to win him accolades with Hamas’s leadership or rank and file, and I suspect that giving an interview to the Forward falls under the same category, and the only reason for someone like Abu Marzouk to try to curry favor with Westerners is because he plans on dealing with them in the future.
Assuming that Abu Marzouk’s thinking is correct and that a harder line is going to be more popular, it is also not going to do any wonders for Hamas’s alleged moderation. Just like in presidential primaries, a hardline position will bring everyone else along, including Meshaal. Hamas is not moderate or accommodationist, and there are plenty of good reasons to doubt that it will ever follow Fatah’s path in recognizing Israel, but at least it has been relatively quiet militarily lately. Abu Marzouk is not advocating in this interview for an immediate resumption of unrelenting hostilities as he thinks that a hudna is a good idea, but the rejection of a permanent peace treaty at any point and no matter the circumstance is designed to send the message that at the end of the day, Hamas is a military organization. This not so subtle reminder can only push Hamas toward its most extreme tendencies, and signals that Hamas’s version of Salam Fayyad is nowhere on the horizon.