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by Barry Rubin


A few months ago I was invited by an embassy to meet a visiting delegation to discuss European policies toward Hamas and Hizballah.

"Before I decide," I asked, "tell me what you think about this issue."

"Oh," replied the diplomat, "we've already decided to deal with them."

"If you already have made up your minds," I answered, "why should I come to talk about it?"

Now, as the Financial Times says in a January 18 article, the European Union is preparing to do business with Hamas despite the fact that it is on their list of banned terrorist groups because they worry "that heavy handed actions by the EU could prove counterproductive, pushing Hamas further from the political mainstream."

Get it? In other words, if the EU is tough on Hamas it might become radical! Why it might even demand Israel's destruction, dispatch suicide bombers, and be anti-semitic! (Irony watch: Yes, that is what they are already doing.)

The local EU representative explained recently, "We will continue to offer our support to all those who seek peace by peaceful means." Great! But does that mean you are concluding Hamas is seeking "peace by peaceful means" or does that mean you won't deal with it if it does not meet that standard?

In fact, a lot of people have made up their mind based on some principle of inevitable moderation: if Hamas gains power it will forget about terrorism and settle down to creating jobs and building a peaceful Palestinian state. And if this does not happen the naive of the world will ignore that fact.

In other words, every time Hamas stages a terrorist attack, calls Jews the offspring of pigs and monkeys, or demands Israel's extinction, these naive people -- Lenin called them "useful idiots" -- will use this as proof that more must be done to persuade it to be moderate. The fault is always with the West and Israel, not the extremists and murderers.

What's that, you ask. Haven't they learned anything from saying the same stuff about the PLO, Fatah, and Yasir Arafat and then seeing it didn't happen?

Ah, but the New York Times has already answered that question in its December 22, 2005 editorial:

"Letting Hamas the lesser evil because any movement, once in power, is compelled to supplement its bluster with deeds. That's what happened to the Palestine Liberation Organization, which once seemed even less acceptable than Hamas."

There are two bizarre notions in this statement. First that it is absolutely certain that a movement in power must perform well rather than stir up people with crazy talk of revolution and destroying one's enemies. It is hard to believe that in a world which has seen Communist and Nazi regimes -- or those of Saddam, Islamist Iran, or the Taliban -- that a sane person could say such things.

Second, to use the PLO as one's example passes into the realm of satire. In fact, a dozen years after the PA was formed experience shows the exact opposite: a regime more interested in carrying on violent struggle than serving its people's needs.

Indeed the PLO stayed in power because it combined bluster with deeds of incitement, intransigence, and terrorism. It may only be ousted now by those whose bluster is louder and whose deeds are more terrible. Why should we believe that Hamas will behave otherwise rather than murdering thousands of people and installing a terrible dictatorship over Palestinians? Well, there's always naïve wishful thinking. Or in the Times ' words:

"We can only hope that if Hamas wins a share of power, Palestinians will expect the same of it as they did of the PLO. If the Islamic militants persist in provoking Israeli incursions, roadblocks and assassinations, their welcome will soon wear thin."

Yes, I hope so, too. But I sure wouldn't risk the lives of millions of people on that hope. Perhaps we should hope that Usama bin Ladin comes to power in Saudi Arabia as the most effective way of defeating international terrorism.

Yet contrary to such expectations, rulers have used guns and ideology to keep their welcome from wearing thin, as substitutes for high living standards and broad civil rights. This combination has long worked in the Middle East and continues to do so despite spectacular failures and rampant corruption.

Perhaps the Times' editorialists don't read their own newspaper. On January 8, Steven Erlanger reported the statement of Khaled Duzdar, a Palestinian analyst at the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information: "Anyone who thinks Hamas will become pragmatic if they win and it will be easier to settle the conflict is unrealistic. Hamas will never shift or change its charter or agenda."

Also full of hope is the International Crisis Group in Brussels which says of Hamas that since Palestinian nationalists cannot make peace, "The international community's best remaining option is to maximize the Islamist movement's incentives to move in a political direction through a policy of gradual, conditional engagement."

The report explains, "There are risks, but the West needs to adopt a policy of gradual, conditional engagement to encourage Hamas to choose politics over violence... by giving it a stake in stability and emphasizing the political costs of a breakdown."

Somehow I don't think the risks are going to be borne by the Group's analysts sitting in Belgium. Even from its own perspective the notion is ridiculous since if the West wants to put its faith in terrorists it would be far better advised to support the Fatah faction led by Marwan Barghuti rather than Hamas.

How do you prove that the assertions about a moderate Hamas are false? You can quote a ton of Hamas statements and documents that they will continue terrorism and never accept Israel. You can look at their daily violent acts. You can examine other precedents -- including the PLO, Communist regimes, and fascist parties -- which prove that moderation is not inevitable.

And you can do a sophisticated analysis to show that Hamas has become strong precisely because of its militancy and promises of total victory. You can suggest that extremists may actually believe their ideology, mean what they say, and cannot be bought off.

Is it really so hard to understand that a group which calls for genocide against Jews, extols terrorism, and demands a Taliban-style regime for Palestinians is not about to become moderate? Apparently it is.

PS: The assumption that attaining power will moderate Hamas -- or any other radical Islamist group -- raises further the intriguing question: well what are all these alleged examples of such transformation which supposedly lay a basis for the theory of inevitable moderation. When you think through moderate history it is very hard to find such cases anywhere. This was certainly not true for Communist movements in the USSR, China, Cuba, North Korea, Albania, Cambodia or Eastern Europe in general. Nor was it true for fascist movements in Germany, Italy, Romania, Slovakia, Croatia, or Hungary. Obviously, it has not proven true for the PLO, the Ba'th party, or Nasserism. (Ok, one could make a case of moderation of Nasserism but mainly over a very long time and due to Sadat's worldview. But the point is also that when a new generation takes power after thirty years or so it might change course. This hardly proves that attaining power and holding it for a while will mellow radicals in the short- to medium-term).

A false example would be purely nationalist movements which gained power in Third World countries. But this was not because they moderated their goals but because they achieved them, say in South Africa or Angola or other parts of the world. In other cases, these nationalist movements were not really so radical to begin with -- Kenya, India, and other places. And even after many or most radical nationalist movements showed they could not run the country they did not reform themselves but rather collapsed entirely.

Thus, while it is possible to find some -- a minority -- of cases when radical movements in power made a transition (I would be happy to hear your examples), history shows that in most cases this did not happen.

Where, then, does this peculiar idea come from? Aside from wishful thinking and liberal triumphalism or a pragmatic refusal to believe that others could think radical and ideological thoughts, my guess is the historiography of the French revolution. This concept, beloved of 1950s social scientists and immortalized by Crane Brinton in Anatomy of a Revolution, is that of "thermidor," the inevitable moderation of revolutions. Arguably the French revolution did burn itself out in a self-consuming reign of terror. But the revolution always had different factions and at any rate Napoleon staged a coup to end it -- the revolutionaries were not capable of managing a transition to a moderate democratic regime.

Again, one can try to find some examples of power -- and the supposed need to collect the garbage and provide jobs for everyone -- of moderating radicals but it would be more reasonable to conclude that this usually does NOT happen. And certainly -- as experience with the PLO shows -- it is more dangerous to assume that moderation will happen than to assume that it will not.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university. He co-authored "Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography," (Oxford University Press). His latest book, "The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East," will be published by Wiley in September. Prof. Rubin's columns can now be read online at


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