Moderate voices vie for clout within Hamas

A recent poll shows most Palestinians prefer negotiation with Israel to letting it act unilaterally.

When imprisoned Palestinians from both Hamas and Fatah last week issued a joint platform that calls for a Palestinian state with the "1967 boundaries," Hamas was caught off guard. Leaders of Hamas, the Islamic militant organization-cum-political party now at the helm of the Palestinian Authority, have said that they will not recognize Israel or endorse a two-state solution - and the prison statement implied something quite the contrary.

Reactions from the Hamas leadership ran the gamut. Several Hamas spokesman were quick to insist that the letter didn't explicitly indicate support for a two-state solution, while others said Hamas is open to negotiation and will follow the will of the people.

Perhaps it is no surprise that those messages sound mixed. Now more than ever, Hamas is speaking with many voices. In the past, the Hamas line was articulated by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the organization's spiritual leader and founder, along with a couple of other top spokesmen - several of them, along with Yassin, assassinated in recent years by Israel. Today, however, it sometimes is difficult to pinpoint Hamas policy. Hamas politicians who say Israel has no place in the Islamic Middle East are vying with voices that sound far more moderate and cooperative, such as Ahmed Yousef, the prime minister's senior political adviser.

"If the people decide that they want recognition [of Israel] tomorrow, OK. We'll do it and we'll have a referendum to see if people agree," says Mr. Yousef, an adviser to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah who lived for some 20 years in the US and maintains close ties there. "Those people's opinions are really being considered," he says of the prisoners' document.

Other Hamas members, however, were quick to shed doubt on the prisoners' platform indicating support for a two-state solution. Government spokesman Ghazi Hamad says many prisoners were totally unaware of the draft. "Nobody spoke about two states in this document," he says, "but it speaks of a general solution accepting the 1967 borders," or the creation of a Palestinian state including the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem, "and we support that."

The prisoners' letter is being viewed by some as a benchmark of moderation emanating from those who are usually considered to hold hardline opinions - and who are held in high esteem in Palestinian society because they were at the forefront of their national struggle. The platform is being looked at with particular interest because it implies a kind of de-facto acceptance of a two-state solution across the two main Palestinian political movements.

There are other signs indicating that many Palestinians' views are more open to compromise than would be assumed, based on Hamas' election sweep in January. Hamas leaders have repeatedly said that they will not recognize Israel or forswear violence - which Hamas views as resistance - against the Jewish state. Rank-and-file Palestinians, however, are indicating that their leanings are more malleable.

Most Palestinians, according to a poll released two weeks ago, think they would fare better by working out their differences with Israel around a negotiating table than they would by dealing themselves out of and having Israel redraw its borders without Palestinian input. Just under three-quarters of Palestinians say they would prefer a negotiated solution to unilateral withdrawals, such as Israel's pull-out from Gaza last year, pollsters at the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion and Survey Research in Ramallah found. And yet, 59 percent of Palestinians polled say they oppose Hamas agreeing to recognize Israel now.

There is growing anger over what Palestinians call the "boycott," where all government employees and elected officials have gone unpaid since March because of the cut-off in most foreign donor funding to the Palestinian Authority.

Nevertheless, the newly elected Hamas officials are setting about the difficult business of governing.

At a recent workshop on how to exercise their newfound power as lawmakers, PLC members learned how to go about questioning government ministers and ministry directors to check on the spending, and get the answers they need.

It sounds a lot like a system of checks and balances, the kind of democratic distribution of power that countries with a stake here - particularly the US - had been trying to cultivate, with deeply limited success, under the late Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat. But under the current circumstances, democracy-building programs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are out.

Salah al-Bardawil is one of the many new PLC members trying to figure out how to run a government on a very slim budget: it is not clear whether the Quartet will allow any of the released funds to go to paying salaries for public jobs, from police to teachers to sanitation workers.

He says that Hamas position does not lag behind the prisoners' platform, but leaves things open for debate. That, after all, is what it means to transform oneself from a militancy group to a party controlling 74 out of 132 parliamentary seats.

"We are in favor of any steps towards establishing a Palestinian state in the borders of 1967," says Mr. Bardawil. "When Israel stops its dream of a state from the Nile to the Euphrates, we will stop our dream of Haifa and Yaffa and Acco," cities along Israel's coast which had large Arab populations before 1948, and still have sizable Arab minorities. "Give us the land of 1967 and less us dream for the next 100 years."

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