Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) pledged that the new unity government would recognize Israel. Given the continued controversy over whether the passages in the Palestinian National Charter calling for the destruction of Israel were actually removed, it is unsurprising that the Netanyahu government doesn’t take Abbas’ promise seriously. But what makes Abbas’ commitment even less trivial is that it didn’t come from Hamas itself. Israel fears that if it makes concessions to Hamas and carries out its end of the bargain, Hamas will not. Jerusalem will not only have received the sucker’s payoff but provided its longstanding enemy with a strategic advantage, making it easier for the Islamist group to attack the Jewish state.
President Obama has reportedly lost interest in the peace process. This does not mean the two sides cannot move ahead anyway. However, while the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will require both sides undertake expensive measures to secure a lasting peace, it is up to Hamas to send a costly signal today that it will uphold it’s commitments tomorrow. In that regard, it can learn a lot from Belgium’s transition to democracy in the late nineteenth century.
In the late nineteenth century, there were widespread fears that politically mobilized Catholics would destroy Belgium’s nascent democracy after they won an election. In 1879, Pope Leo XIII stepped in and demanded that Belgian Catholics stop attacking the state’s constitution. Shortly thereafter, the Belgian Church began to purge radicals who would have otherwise subverted the state’s liberal charter. This signaled that an electoral victory by the religious party would not result in democratic backsliding because it was lead by moderates.
Hamas’ dilemma is also analogous to that of electoral socialism during the twentieth century. Socialist parties throughout Europe had to make tradeoffs between adopting platforms that would only benefit the working class, or moderating their charters and expanding their appeal to multiple sectors of society. However, over the long term these cross-class appeals were more effective for gaining power than populism.
For Hamas to play a constructive role in the current unity government and any sort of compromise with Israel, it is necessary for it to undertake a few costly risks.
First, it must publicly purge the most radical members of the organization, rendering them politically persona non grata. This does not mean that Hamas should give up its Islamist character. However, it has to demonstrate that extreme hard-liners bent on the Jewish state’s destruction are no longer welcome in the organization. Like Pope Leo XIII, the professional ulama that are politically loyal to Hamas can play a constructive role by providing political moderates with religious cover to undertake such a purge.
Second, it must publicly revise its charter. The revision of the Palestinian National Charter was a contentious back-and-forth process. However, Hamas must go through a similar revision where it abandons calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.
Hardline tactics such as suicide bombing are also considered to be costly signals of resolve. However, costly signals of moderation often yield long-term benefits. Like many socialist parties and the early Christian Democrats in Belgium, Hamas is more likely to benefit from sending costly signals indicating moderation. This is because it will reassure Israeli governments across the political spectrum that the group will not renege on its end of any future bargain.