- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2006

TEL AVIV — With his closely cropped beard, warm grin and eloquent manner of speech, Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Ismail Haniyeh is a bit of an oddity among the hard-line militants who characterize Hamas.

His reputation for moderation seemed to be strengthened late last month when Newsweek quoted him as saying that Hamas would consider a phased peace with Israel. But Mr. Haniyeh swiftly denied the report, reminding the world that the Islamist group is not about to change its nature under his leadership.

“He looks like a moderate face, although some people believe that he is very extremist,” said Eyad Saraj, a Gaza-based human rights advocate.

“He’s strong in the ideology of Hamas, but he has shown charisma [and] accommodation of all different views. He is the kind of person who is ready to compromise, but not on fundamentals.”

The contradictions inherent in Mr. Haniyeh reflect the difficulties facing Hamas as the organization prepares to become the ruling party in the Palestinian territories.

Surprised by the electoral tide that swept it to majority control of the Palestinian parliament, Hamas has sought to shed its radical image even as it steadfastly defends its armed uprising against Israel. The choice of the charismatic 43-year-old for prime minister reflects those contradictory goals.

“We do not have any feelings of animosity toward the Jews,” Mr. Haniyeh told Newsweek. “We do not want to throw them into the sea. All we seek is to be given our land back.”

Palestinians hope Mr. Haniyeh will be able to improve international opinion of Hamas, but few expect him to negotiate a peace deal with Israel.

“Compromise with Israel? This is not our big concern,” said Abdel Rahman Zeidan, a Hamas legislator from the West Bank. “Haniyeh can speak with the world the language that we want to reveal. It’s a matter of how the world can see us. Maybe it’s because of his nice smile.”

Mr. Haniyeh came to prominence as the top aide to Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the wheelchair-bound Hamas spiritual leader who was killed by Israel almost two years ago.

Mr. Haniyeh’s reputation for moderation springs from his role as a mediator between Hamas and the Fatah Party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

In the bitter rivalry between the upstart Islamists and the Palestinian secular establishment, Mr. Haniyeh built his popularity around appeals for “national unity.”

That’s not likely to go far in impressing Israel.

“The fact that he’s moderate in Palestinian politics doesn’t mean he’s moderate on Israel,” said Shmuel Bar, a Middle East analyst at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.

“In regards to any minimal amount of moderation that Israel would need — regarding recognizing Israel’s right to exist — I don’t think he’s even close.”

The son of Palestinians who fled their homes during Israel’s war of independence in 1948, Mr. Haniyeh grew up and still lives in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Outside his home, there are donkey-drawn carts, open sewers and children playing barefoot.

“He is seen by the Palestinians as one of us. That gives the Hamas an image of power as incorruptible,” Mr. Saraj said.

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