Hamas' choice: Recognition or resistance in the age of Obama
In a major policy speech on 25 June 2009, Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas' political bureau, tried to do what may be impossible: present the Islamist Palestinian resistance organization as a willing partner in a US-led peace process, while holding on to his movement's political principles and base. 
This is the dilemma that every Palestinian leadership, and perhaps almost every liberation movement, has eventually had to confront. It is a choice, as political scientist Tamim Barghouti has pointed out, between recognition and legitimacy.  According to Barghouti, the old-guard Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership, when confronted with the same dilemma, chose recognition and forfeited its legitimacy, opening the way for Hamas to emerge. Now it is the turn of Hamas: the price demanded by the
Meshal's nearly hour-long "address to the Palestinian people and the world" was billed as a response to the speeches of US President Barack Obama in
To begin with, the speech sought to present Hamas as a nationalist movement whose Islamism fits within a mainstream Palestinian consensus. Meshal used an explicitly ecumenical message to counter Netanyahu's exclusivist Jewish claims to the
More generally, he sought to portray Muslims as representing the very values Westerners claim to cherish most and dissociate Hamas from lurid and false comparisons to such groups as the Taliban. "We [Muslims] are the ones who introduced the world and humanity to science, civilization, culture and lofty humanitarian values," Meshal declared, "values such as justice, freedom, equality, compassion and tolerance, and the values of interaction between civilizations and not a confrontation between them."
Meshal welcomed a "change of tone" from President Obama but emphasized repeatedly that only a change of policy would matter. He nevertheless claimed the new tone as the fruit of the "stubborn steadfastness of the people of the region, while resisting in
He chided regional leaders who had "marketed and promoted" Bush's policies. "Had the people of the region listened to them," Meshal said, "the policy of Bush and the neoconservatives might have succeeded and the region's situation would be worse than imaginable." Meshal voiced the widespread skepticism and perhaps hopes that Obama's promises amounted to more than the similar words about
Responding to Obama's recital of history, Meshal did not seek to deny the Nazi Holocaust but to appropriate it. He took Obama to task for dwelling in detail on the "suffering of the Jews and their holocaust in Europe, while ignoring our present suffering and
Meshal emphasized that even though Palestinians have heard only words, they were prepared to judge the US by its actions, which would have to "begin with reconstruction of Gaza and the lifting of the blockade, lifting the oppression and security pressure in the West Bank, and allowing Palestinian reconciliation to take its course without external pressures or interference."
The "only thing" that can convince Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims, Meshal stated, "is genuine American and international will and efforts to end the occupation and lift the oppression from our people, to allow them to exercise their right to self-determination and the fulfillment of their national rights." When the Obama administration makes such an initiative, Meshal said, "then we and all our people's forces will be ready to cooperate with it and with any international effort in that direction."
Obama's "new language toward Hamas," Meshal underlined, "is the first step in the right direction towards direct dialogue without conditions." And that is the crux of the matter. Dealing with Hamas, Meshal said, must be based on the recognition of its democratic mandate and not via the imposition of arbitrary conditions such as those of the Quartet which call on the movement to recognize
Meshal reasserted Hamas' political red lines while maintaining a sense of flexibility. In particular, Meshal:
Rejected the Palestinian state envisaged by the Israeli leader as a "deformed entity, a large prison for detention and suffering, and not the national home a great people deserves."
Reaffirmed Hamas' previous acceptance of "the program that represents the minimum demands of our people," for "the establishment of a Palestinian state whose capital is
Meshal also offered a nuanced response to Obama's call on Palestinians to abandon "dead end" violence in favor of nonviolent resistance. "We reaffirm our adherence to resistance as a strategic choice to liberate the homeland and restore our rights," Meshal said, citing armed European resistance to Nazi Germany, American resistance to British rule and the Vietnamese and South African anti-colonial struggles as precedents for Palestinians.
"Nonviolent resistance is appropriate in a struggle for civil rights," Meshal argued, "But when it comes to a military occupation using conventional and nonconventional weapons, such an occupation can only be confronted with armed resistance." Palestinians were forced to take up arms, Meshal said. He could also have been implying that if Palestinians changed the definition of their struggle as being one for civil rights then the appropriate means of resistance would also change.
"Resistance is a means and not an end," Meshal said, "and it is not blind. Indeed it perceives the changes underway." Yet, while staunchly defending the right to armed resistance -- and even threatening new operations to take Israeli soldiers prisoner if it was the only way to free Palestinians prisoners -- Meshal also recognized other forms of struggle. He called for increased Palestinian, Arab and international solidarity efforts, including ongoing efforts to break the siege on
For Hamas leaders, the dangers of submitting to western preconditions can be seen merely by looking at the trajectory of the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership which recognized
As Meshal put it, "These conditions do not end; as soon as the Palestinian negotiator commits to one, more conditions are imposed. For example, first the condition was to recognize
The latter point was a reference to the arrest campaign in the West Bank and what Meshal called other "oppressive measures undertaken by the [Palestinian] Authority and the government of Salam Fayyad and its security forces under the supervision of the American General [Keith]
After Hamas won the 2006 legislative election, the Bush administration began a program overseen by
Throughout the speech, Meshal sought to reassure Palestinians that Hamas would not abandon its core principles in pursuit of recognition and power. "The land is more important than authority, and liberation before a state," he said at one point, and "no Palestinian leadership has the right to waive Palestinian national rights and interests as the price for recognition."
Some Palestinians worry that despite such assurances, Hamas has already set off down the very path Meshal warned about and risks squandering the sacrifices Palestinians made, especially in
Another analysis of Hamas' shift currently circulating argues that Hamas has accepted the Palestinian "consensus" position of a two-state solution on every inch of the 1967 occupied territories with removal of all settlements and with the Right of Return. But it knows that no potential peace deal coming from the Obama initiative will ever reach even these minimal conditions, and that if Abbas and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could not reach even the outlines of an agreement after two years of negotiations, the chances of any deal with a Netanyahu-Lieberman government are even tinier. In this scenario, Hamas need not stand in the way of a two-state solution because it will fail anyway. But by saying it would accept that minimalist outcome, it would avoid blame for the failure and its adherence to resistance would be vindicated.
What we do know is that Hamas' leaders, and the Palestinians generally, have been placed under intense pressure, occupation, blockades, starvation sieges and recurrent Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the vast majority so far has not submitted to Israeli conditions. But while emphasizing the role of resistance and struggle to achieve liberation, Hamas has not offered a clear vision of what liberation looks like other than the unconvincing and increasingly unrealistic two-state vision (leaving aside its long, outdated, though much-cited charter that offers no guide to the movement's current thinking).
Meshal's speech confirms Hamas' long-term shift away from Islamist rhetoric toward mainstream Palestinian nationalist discourse. It indicates that Hamas is highly sensitive to international and Palestinian public opinion and is aware that Palestinians need to build real international solidarity as part of a strategy to level the glaring power imbalance with
This leaves the field open for an urgent debate among Palestinians about what that future vision should be and what role resistance in all its legitimate forms should play. No group of leaders, whether from Hamas or any other organization, could or should carry the burden of restoring Palestinian rights by itself. Hamas, like other Palestinian organizations, can only be a guardian of fundamental rights to the extent that it is embedded in a broader movement mobilized in
And if Hamas' potential interlocutors are sincerely seeking ways to recognize the democratic mandate of the movement without trying to force it to forfeit its legitimacy, there are precedents.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article was published with the last two lines in the second paragraph inadvertently deleted.
Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Abunimah also co-founded The Electronic Intifada. This analysis was originally published by the
 The speech is in Arabic. All excerpts quoted in this article are the author's translation. A transcript and recording of the speech were made available by the
 In a paper given at the Annual Symposium of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University on the theme: "Palestine and the Palestinians Today," 2-3 April 2009, Washington, DC.