Islam and the West

Scott Atran

Whatever the endgame between Israel, Hezbollah and Hamas, one thing is certain: Israel's hopes of ensuring its security by walling itself off from resentful neighbors are dead. One lesson from Israel's assault on Lebanon and its military operation in Gaza is that the missiles blow back.

We can hope that multinational cooperation will help to secure Israel's border with Lebanon. But what about the Palestinian issue, which has been seemingly pushed to the back burner by the war in Lebanon?

A bold gesture now by Israel would surprise adversaries, convey strength and even catch domestic political opposition off guard. And as strange as it may seem, were the United States able to help Israel help Hamas, it might turn the rising tide of global Muslim resentment.

Recent discussions I've had with Hamas leaders and their supporters around the globe indicate that Israel might just find a reasonable and influential bargaining partner.

Hamas's top elected official, Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, now accepts that to stop his people's suffering, his government must forsake its all-or-nothing call for Israel's destruction. "We have no problem with a sovereign Palestinian state over all our lands within the 1967 borders, living in calm," Haniya told me in his Gaza City office in late June, shortly before an Israeli missile destroyed it. "But we need the West as a partner to help us through."

Haniya's government had just agreed to a historic compromise with Fatah and its leader, President Mahmoud Abbas, forming a national coalition that implicitly accepts coexistence alongside Israel. But this breakthrough was quickly overshadowed by Israel's offensive into Gaza in retaliation for the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, corporal Gilad Shalit, by Palestinian militants, including members of Hamas's military wing.

Khaled Meshal, the Damascus-based head of the Hamas politburo, refused to release Shalit unless Israel freed hundreds of Prisoners. While it is true that Israel has shown willingness to release hundreds of Palestinian detainees in return for a single Israeli in the past, Meshal's stand might have been part of a larger political game.

As a senior adviser to Abbas told me of Meshal: "He has tried to undermine the Haniya government's authority by presenting himself as Hamas's true decision maker."

Haniya and many of Hamas's other Sunni leaders are known to be uncomfortable with the loose coalition that Meshal has been forging with Shiite Iran and Hezbollah. But even moderate Hamas figures feel that as long as Israel, the United States and Europe boycott the elected government in Gaza and the West Bank, there is little choice but to accept whatever help comes along.

This is doubly unfortunate. While Meshal says Islam allows only a long-term truce with Israel, Hamas officials closer to Haniya believe that a formal peace deal is possible, especially if negotiations can begin out of the spotlight and proceed by degrees.

Although Haniya has more popular support, Meshal controls the militias and the money. If financing - perhaps from moderate Arab states - could be channeled to Haniya's government for social services like salaries, fuel, food, building repairs, garbage collection and so forth, then Meshal's (mostly Iranian) bankroll would be less of a factor, and popular pressure could help rein in Hamas's military wing.

Haniya's position comes down to this: "We need you, as you need us." For America and Europe, the stakes are also high. Haniya wants Americans and Europeans to recognize that the region has welcomed Hamas's election as a genuine exercise in democracy.

If America were to engage his government, he believes, it would be the West's best opportunity to reverse its steep decline in the esteem of Arabs and Muslims everywhere. "We need a dialogue of civilizations," he said, "not a clash of civilizations."

A survey by the Pew Center released in June found that Muslim opinions about the West had worsened drastically over the past year.

But Khurshid Ahmad, a senator in Pakistan and leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the world's oldest and most important Islamist movements recently told me that if Hamas accepted a two-state solution, "then I would recommend this solution to the entire Muslim community."

As the Pew survey made clear, the Israel-Palestinian issue has become the principal fault line in world conflict. There would be some sad satisfaction if the bloodshed in Gaza and Lebanon served as a starting point for bringing the larger conflict to an end.


Fears of renewed war in Lebanon

AMMAN: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel is now fighting for his political life after failing to achieve his declared objectives in Lebanon and is sounding more threatening than ever. The Israeli opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is already talking about another round of fighting to finish what he calls the "unfinished" war with Hezbollah. Meanwhile, the Hezbollah leader, hassan Nasrallah, dismissed talk about disarming his group. Israel may exploit the internal Lebanese debate about disarming Hezbollah as suggested in UN Resolution 1701 to reignite another round of fighting. There is a growing fear that the stage is being rapidly set for another explosion unless both sides faithfully respect what they agreed to after the adoption of the resolution. Both Israel and Hezbollah must get their act together in accordance with the letter and spirit of UN Resolution 1701.

CALCUTTA: Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah are naturally being counted as winners for having survived a combined Israeli-U.S. military and diplomatic onslaught. Where there are winners, there are also losers, and the losers here include Israel's new prime minister, Ehud Olmert. Olmert stepped into the big shoes of Ariel Sharon, and perhaps wished to show that he, despite having almost no military experience, could be a war leader too. The Bush administration is another clear loser here, though it seems to have become too shameless by now to care. Lebanon, a secular Arab country, gets added to the long list of foreign cultures the American political elite simply do not comprehend. It is a lack of personal memory that may be a factor in America's sometimes adolescent miscomprehension of societies, cultures and nations which are much older.

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