Ever since Hamas’s victory in Palestinian Authority elections in January, advocates of “engagement” with the terrorist group, which is responsible for suicide bombings and other attacks that have killed hundreds of Israelis, have been saying that Hamas will be forced by the realities of governing to moderate its approach to Israel.
Thus far, however, there is no indication that Hamas will do any such thing. For example, following the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv one week ago, which killed 9 people, a Hamas spokesman defended the crime as “a legal and natural reaction to the Israeli crimes” and an example of Palestinians’ exercising their right of self-defense. Since Hamas won the Jan. 25 PA elections, its Web sites have called for the nuclear annihilation of Israel and featured children’s stories glorifying a young girl’s step-by-step planning of a suicide terror attack. If Hamas shows no indication that it will moderate its current behavior, what about the longer-term prognosis? Can a revolutionary terrorist organization like Hamas transform itself into a democratic political entity that respects pluralism and the rule of law?
There are indeed two prominent cases in the Arab world in which radical Islamists have moderated their behavior as members of the political opposition. But in each case, the Islamists were constrained in their freedom of action by authoritarian regimes and strong central governments who were determined to rein them in. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas’ parent organization) advocated violence from its establishment in 1928 until it was outlawed in 1954. Subsequently, party operatives split into two different groups: The radicals joined Egyptian Islamic Jihad, an organization that would become aligned with al Qaeda, while relative moderates renounced violence, entered politics and became the country’s largest opposition group. In Jordan, the Hashemite monarchy began coopting Islamists from the country’s inception in the mid-1940s. As a result, Islamist movements are well-represented in parliament. They have supported the monarchy during times of crisis, including the one that followed November’s hotel bombings by the Zarqawi terror network.
Unlike the situations in Egypt and Jordan, however, there will be no authoritarian government or secret police with the ability to constrain Hamas’ action by throwing its violent cadres in jail. Indeed, Hamas itself is now the dominant force inside the PA, in command of the coercive powers of the state. If recent history is any indication, violent Islamofascist groups don’t opt for pragmatism after seizing the reins of power.
In Iran, for example, U.S. policymakers have attempted without success since the 1979 revolution to use diplomacy to moderate the regime’s behavior. In each case, the result was humiliation and failure for America. In 1979, the Carter administration’s efforts to reach out to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime were dashed by attack on the U.S. embassy and the seizure of the hostages. The Reagan administration’s efforts fell apart with the public exposure of efforts to exchange arms for hostages. Following the 1997 election of President Mohammed Khatami, a purported moderate, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made a series of diplomatic overtures, which included apologizing for the 1953 coup that brought the Shah to power, and easing sanctions against European oil and gas companies who invest in Iran. What the United States got in return was a bloody crackdown on dissidents and a redoubling of Iranian support for Palestinian rejectionists who were ultimately successful in derailing Washington’s efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More recently, the three-year effort by the European Union to persuade Iran to tell the truth about its atomic weapons program has failed.
In Lebanon, we were assured that Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the southern part of the country in May 2000 would persuade Hezbollah to turn inward and devote its attention to Lebanese domestic issues. But Hezbollah responded by kidnapping and killing Israeli soldiers patrolling the border with Lebanon and taking a leadership role in directing Palestinian terrorist activities against Israel from the West Bank and Gaza. Today the group has close to 12,000 rockets available for use against Israel or intimidating Lebanese political rivals. President Clinton spent almost his entire presidency attempting without success to persuade Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to accept a two-state compromise with Israel.
After the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in 1996, the Clinton administration made repeated and unsuccessful overtures to Mullah Omar (many of the diplomatic efforts centered around a quixotic National Security Council scheme to build an oil and natural-gas pipeline that would serve as an alternative to pipelines running through Iran). In Sudan, where it appeared for a while that a violent Islamist regime had turned over a new leaf, the government is supporting a genocidal campaign of persecution in Darfur that has killed 180,000 people over the past three years.
In sum, Hamas ‘s own history and the recent historical record leave little reason for optimism that the organization will moderate its approach toward Israel or behave in a responsible way toward its own people.
Joel Himelfarb is the assistant editor of the editorial page of The Washington Times.