Today's question: What's up with Jimmy Carter and Hamas? Later in the week, Pearl and Bisharat will discuss the United States' role in facilitating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, their personal connections to the Holy Land and more. Click here to read Monday's exchange.
Point: George E. Bisharat
Former President Jimmy Carter is a pragmatist who understands that conflict resolution requires negotiations between enemies, not friends. That simple wisdom, unfortunately, eludes our current administration, which has attempted to ostracize and intimidate anyone, including Hamas, who opposes our Middle East policies. As a result of Bush's confrontational and unconditionally pro-Israel stance, our image in the Arab and Muslim worlds is at a historic low. Yet there is no indication that this policy has appreciably weakened our ostensible foes. Meanwhile, Carter's courage has been rewarded with little but condemnation from our politicians and media pundits adhering, as always, to a suffocating pro-Israel orthodoxy.
Hamas, the acronym of the Islamic Resistance Movement, emerged out of the Gaza Strip branch of the Muslim Brotherhood shortly after the beginning of the first Palestinian intifada ("uprising") in 1987. Hamas' professed aim is to establish an Islamic state in all of Palestine (that is, Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip). Its ideology, particularly as expressed in its charter and early communiques, is regressive and anti-Semitic. I abhor these characteristics as much as I abhor racism in any other context.
Hamas' goals, however, are little more than the mirror image of Zionism. Where Hamas seeks an Islamic state, Zionism seeks a Jewish state. Each promotes a vision that privileges one group over another. Both impulses are illegitimate. There is no room in the 21st century for ethno-religious exclusionism as espoused either by Hamas or by Israel.
Still, I would not counsel that either be barred from negotiations.
Hamas has evolved greatly from its early days as a resistance organization against Israeli military occupation. It has developed an extensive social service network that dispenses medical care, education, child care and food to the poor. In doing so, it has consistently outperformed the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority. Hamas has, in recent years, also demonstrated considerable ideological flexibility -- for example, proposing a long-term "truce" with Israel that was tantamount to a peace agreement. Although public opinion polls show that as few as 3% of Palestinians support Islamic rule in Palestine, a plurality of Palestinians voted for Hamas in their 2006 legislative elections. They did so believing in Hamas' "change and reform" platform and trusting that Hamas would stand up strongly against Israeli violations of Palestinian rights.
Over the last eight years, Israel has repeatedly ruptured cease-fires unilaterally adopted by Hamas, arresting or killing the group's leaders -- and often family members, friends and other innocent bystanders. Why? Quite simply, Israel's politicians hope to control all of Palestine, and conflict provides the cover for continuing territorial expansion. Stirring the pot always distracts attention from Israel's relentless drive to colonize the West Bank.
Judea, based on your last post, it strikes me that the difference between us is that you support a form of "separate but equal" in Israel and Palestine, whereas I support equal rights for all. The experience of the United States should help us understand that separate is never equal, and yours is a prescription for perpetual injustice and continuing conflict.
George E. Bisharat is a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East.
Counterpoint: Judea Pearl
Hamas seems to be doing something right after all.
Carter tells us that we should negotiate with Hamas because he is a "friend of Israel," and Hamas, Carter discovered, "was willing to accept the Jewish state as neighbor next door" (if certain conditions were met). The whole world cheered Carter for this discovery because it understands that satisfying the national aspirations of all people in the region, aside from being the key to peace, is a moral and historical imperative. George, you tell us that we should negotiate with Hamas, but for the exact opposite reason: The state of Israel should be dismantled and giving Hamas legitimacy is the best way to advance this noble cause. I tend to agree with your assessment of Hamas, and for two reasons.
First, I have found Carter's sincerity to be questionable. Second, I have found Hamas to be quite consistent and explicit in its claims, methods and final aims. So bringing it into peace negotiations will make the prospect of destroying Israel appear within better reach to Palestinians, weaken Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other peace-minded Palestinians, and make the dream of a Palestinian state another century removed from reality.
But before we discuss Carter and Hamas, I would like to correct another one of your misconceptions, George, of which you are perhaps unaware having made the grotesque comparison, "Where Hamas seeks an Islamic state, Zionism seeks a Jewish state." The "Jewish state" sought by Zionism has nothing to do with religion or ethnicity. Theodore Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, was an atheist.
About 70% of Israeli Jews are secular (they do not practice Jewish laws and do not believe in divine supervision or in the afterlife) and comprise dozens of ethnic groups, including black Jews from Arab countries and even Afghan Jews, thus making up one of the most open, pluralistic, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural societies in the world.
To Israelis, a "Jewish state" means "a state for the Jewish people," based on shared history, not religion. This is no different from any other state. Take Spain, where holidays and textbooks commemorate milestones of Spanish -- not Portuguese -- history, where streets are named after Spanish -- not French -- writers, and where the Portuguese-speaking minority enjoys the same rights as the Spanish-speaking majority. Spain and Portugal (or the U.S. and Mexico) provide a good model for the kind of neighborly relation that the two-state solution offers Israel and Palestine, and which Hamas (and evidently you, George) are laboring to caricature as exclusionist, ethno-religious and even racist.
George, if there is racism in this conflict, it lies with the ideology of anti-Zionism, which grants all nations in the world the right of self determination except one -- the Jewish nation.
Back to Carter. My problems with the former president lie on two planes: first, his apparent blindness to the immorality of terror, and second, his imprisonment by wishful thinking. To understand the moral mind-set of Carter vis-a-vis terror, I invite readers to look at page 213 of his infamous book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," and to try and figure out what he means by saying, "It is imperative that the general Arab community and all significant Palestinian groups make it clear that they will end the suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism when international laws and the ultimate goals of the Roadmap for Peace are accepted by Israel."
To me, it means that terrorism is a legitimate tactic to pressure Israel to behave according to Carter's interpretation of the roadmap. Put more bluntly, it is like telling a rapist, "It is imperative that you and your entire gang make it clear that you will stop raping the woman when she conforms to standards of good behavior." Carter's tango with Hamas is a further proof that the man is oblivious to what the culture of terror is doing to society.
Finally, on wishful thinking, Carter's assessment of Hamas as a partner for negotiations lies crucially on the hope that Hamas will some day accept Israel. George, you tell us that Israel is an irredeemable, criminal, imperialist and racist state that should be dismantled immediately and will never, never be accepted by any honorable Palestinian. Now, please help me with my logic: If an educated, secular professor like yourself (as well as the overwhelming majority of your Palestinian colleagues) sees no chance nor moral license for accepting Israel, can we assume that Hamas will?
Judea Pearl, a professor of computer science at UCLA, is a frequent commentator on the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is the president and co-founder of the Daniel Pearl Foundation -- named after his son -- a nonprofit organization dedicated to dialogue and cross-cultural understanding.
Response from George E. Bisharat
Judea, it is always a pleasure to hear your perspective. Here are a few quick responses:
You say that Jews are not limited to a religious group and describe "black Jews, Jews from Arab countries and even Afghani Jews." How do you square this multi-ethnic reality with your claim that Jews are a people with a "shared history"? Isn't it perfectly obvious that the diversity within world Jewry is the result of conversions to Judaism of natives from these widespread lands who, in fact, have lived very different histories? What, therefore, was it that bound them to other Jews if not religion? And further, if shared faith, not common origins in Palestine, was the principal bond among Jews, what does this say about the nature of Israel's claim to Palestinian lands? Would we say that an Indonesian Muslim has rights to Mecca by virtue of faith -- over and above those of native Saudi Arabian Muslims who have lived there continuously for centuries? I don't think so.
Second, when international civil society mobilized against South African apartheid, no one was impugning the dignity, humanity or rights of white South Africans. We opposed a system that institutionalized racial inequality. Likewise, to oppose Israel's discriminatory treatment of Palestinians under its rule is not to impugn the dignity, humanity or rights of Israeli Jews, which I explicitly affirm. As with apartheid, the system of Israeli rule is the problem, not the people.
Finally, the point of my comparison of Hamas to Zionism is not that they are both religious. That is something we can argue about; Israel does, in fact, have some theocratic features -- including the fact that Orthodox rabbis in Israel control many dimensions of family law through a system of rabbinical courts; religious parties, such as the National Religious Party, compete in elections and join in governments, including the current one; and there is no institution of civil marriage. Hamas, in turn, is largely a nationalist organization that speaks in a religious idiom. But both movements promote the supremacy of one group over others who live in the same polity: either Muslims or Jews. Both of these ideologies are regressive, and I repudiate them both. Yet excluding either party from negotiations, or placing non-reciprocal conditions on one or the other, is simply a formula for further dispute.