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Ha... Ha... Hamas

One of the most hotly debated issues in US and European foreign policy at the moment, certainly in the light of Barack Obama’s presidency, is whether or not to talk to the fundamentalist and militant Palestinian Hamas movement. And should the West drop some of its pre-conditions for doing so? Is it OK if the group only renounces violence? Remember Yasser Arafat’s oft-quoted renunciation of tourism? I swear, that is what most people heard at the time.

But it worked and before the Israelis knew it they were kissing their old nemesis’s stubbly and quivering cheek. Could something similar happen with Hamas? Well, Arafat did also, eventually and as a precondition for the exercise of his personal right of return, accept the two-state solution. Hamas won’t. And it will not accept previously signed agreements. Even Israel’s onetime and probably next right-wing Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, did not openly dodge official commitments. So, Hamas does still seem somewhat beyond the pale.

The fundi’s are quick learners though, and there does seem to be a definite desire to expand the effectiveness of the resistance to the political arena. The real question is not if Hamas wants political engagement but whether their original aim, the destruction of Israel, still stands. And if it does, as seems likely, whether political engagement can still be valuable – either to manage the conflict or in the hope that they’ll change. All the while taking into account the price that legitimising them will entail.

A recent chat with Zaki Bani Rsheid, the leader of the political branch of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Action Front, gives some pointers. Bani Rsheid is seen as close to Hamas and as such a leading ‘hawk’ in the Jordanian context, which is that the country has always been led by a Hashemite monarchy that has made a pro-Western stance and compromise with Israel a lynchpin of its survival.

But Bani Rsheid is, almost disappointingly, mild, charming and even moderate for such a supposed radical. He’s the embodiment of the post-Bush no-longer good-versus-evil universe that we find ourselves in and which makes life so much harder for the punters.

Even before the guns had been silenced in Gaza, Bani Rsheid displayed a keen understanding of where Hamas could win the war, even while losing the battle. “We see this as undermining Israel’s international legitimacy,” he said. In other words, Hamas and its allies understand that in the current international political climate, support for Israel erodes further every time that country acts militarily. So much the better for them if the Israelis oblige them with disproportionate violence or the use of illegal weapons. But really, that’s just icing on the cake.

Jordan’s king Abdallah II cosied  up to Hamas last year and was given a relatively free ride in return during the Gaza fighting, certainly compared to the way the Egyptian government was seen by the Arab street. Bani Rsheid says that Jordan’s rapprochement with Hamas served to “protect” the country from  more disturbances during the Gaza crisis.

Significantly, Bani Rsheid said that while his movement keeps demanding the annulment of Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel, it knows that this is in practice unattainable. “It will take a long, long time. It will have to go through a long process in Parliament and the government. We know that it may never happen.” While the IAF demanded the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador over the fighting in Gaza, it didn’t happen, it did not raise the matter of the peace treaty.

Judging by the likes of Bani Rsheid, or at least by his utterances, Hamas and its allies may be ripe for political engagement. But even though politics are rarely built on trust, the fundamentalists do face a rare trust-deficit. Even in the Arab world, very few people take what they say on face value. If there’s one thing that many people in the Arab street say about both the Israelis and the fundamentalists it is, “you cannot trust them.”