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by Gerald M. Steinberg


Twenty years ago, they told us that Arafat and PLO were becoming pragmatic, and were ready to give up terror and make peace with Israel. It turned out that these hopeful predictions were wrong, but the same people are now appearing on radio and television, to declare that the leaders of Hamas will form a pragmatic Palestinian government. The odds that they will get this one right are not very high.

Their optimism is based on the theory that when members of terrorist, liberation or revolutionary groups gain political power, they are forced to deal with the realities of the governing process. According to this model, the need to provide jobs, housing, health and education, and security will also require cooperation with enemies and neighbors, including Israe. This cooperation, in turn, is supposed to foster ideological moderation, and a transition from violence to peaceful coexistence.

But like many appealing diplomatic theories, this one has a poor track record in the real world, particularly in the case of radical Islamist groups, such as Hamas. In Afghanistan, when the Taliban took power after decades of warfare and terror, the extremist mullahs were expected to become pragmatic. But instead of moderation, they converted their power into a reign of terror used to impose the most extreme form of Islam on the entire population.

The Taliban leaders never bought into the concepts of responsible government. And social services -- health, education and economic development -- were not high on their list of priorities. And instead of cooperation with the West, Mullah Omar and the rest of the Taliban leadership used their control over Afghanistan to provide Osama bin Laden with a safe haven and a base for operations.

The same theory has been used to predict the transformation of Hizbullah from a Iranian-linked Shi'ite terror group focused on attacking Israeli and Western targets into a political party focusing on internal Lebanese issues. But in this case as well, the hard evidence has proven stronger than the soft theory, at least in the five years since the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

Instead of ending its terror activities and investing more in social services, Hizbullah engaged in kidnapping Israeli soldiers, the deployment of 12,000 rockets, and in providing direct support for Palestinian terror attacks. So while Hizbullah pursues political power in Lebanon in parallel with terrorism, the declarations of leaders such as Hassan Nasrallah, rejecting all disarmament proposals, appear entirely credible.

In the face of repeated failures, what accounts for the persistence of diplomacy based on wishful thinking, and the artificial dichotomy between political power and the use of terror?

In part, it is what academics (realists, at least) refer to as "mirror imaging," in which Western diplomats project their own pragmatism and compromise onto leaders of terror groups from other cultures. The West has adopted an idealism that reflects its own history, including the tolerance resulting from the Enlightenment, and centuries of devastating religious and ideological warfare.

But from this specific experience, the intellectual and political trend-setters have attempted to universalize the process. Europeans, in particular, place themselves at the vanguard of a universal process in which religion, ideology and nationalism have lost their power of persuasion. In the place of these dark forces of primitive human nature, Europeans see pragmatism, tolerance, reconciliation and compromise as being on the ascendant. So to gain aid, access and weapons, "revolutionary" leaders tell Westerners what they want to hear -- that they, too, share these goals.

These factors helped push the Middle East "peace process" beginning with the secret Oslo talks and ending in disaster. Here too, wishful thinking presented an image of Yasser Arafat having made the transition from terrorist leader to pragmatic statesman seeking the best for his people. The mountain of evidence demonstrating that Arafat remained stuck in 1947 rejectionism was overlooked -- it was inconsistent with the messianism of instant peace.

Now, many of the same people who enthusiastically promoted Oslo are pushing for a political dialogue with Hamas, assuming that this group will take power from the corrupt and ineffectual Fatah faction. At the same time, Hamas is still planning terror attacks and continuing in its rejection of the legitimacy of Israel, regardless of borders. As in Arafat's case, Hamas leaders might reasonably conclude that they can receive recognition and control of the aid funds for the Palestinian Authority without disarming or halting their "armed struggle."

If European and American statements about pragmatism and peace are more than empty rhetoric, they will have to link any further aid to the Palestinian Authority to ending terror and incitement. More broadly, the time has come for Europe and America to learn from the experience in Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and with Hizbollah, and check their theories, based largely on wishful thinking, against the realities of the Middle East.

Perhaps Hamas break the mold, and act like a European political party instead of a terrorist group, but at this stage, this is only wishful thinking. And such thin hopes are no substitute for realistic policies in response to the new realities in the Palestinian Authority, and the rise of Islamist extremism.

Gerald M. Steinberg heads the Program on Conflict Management at Bar Ilan University and is the editor of NGO Monitor. Contact him by email at, This was submitted January 26, 2006.


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