Hamas, Syria and Charie Rose
From May 29 to June 4th, The World Council of Churches, an organization representing 349 Churches and 550 million Christians, Worldwide is dedicating a week to advocacy, prayer and education for peace in Palestine and Israel (www.oikoumene.org). Among various initiatives, these churches will pray together with churches living under Israeli occupation. This article can be seen as my expression of solidarity with half a billion Christians who pray for a just peace in the Middle East.
Charlie Rose, the Dean of television interviewers, travelled to Damascus, Syria last week and interviewed Bashar al-Asad, the President of Syria and Khalid Mishal, the most influential of Hamas leaders. In these two interviews he covered a wide range of topics and provides deep insights into how the Syrian and Hamas leadership thinks about US’ role in the region, the role of Iran and its nuclear program, and relations with Israel. I cannot both summarize and analyze the two interviews in one column. It is important that readers view these interviews themselves. They can be viewed Rose’s website (www.charlierose.com).
The things that stood out for me in the twin interviews was the amazing candor with which both al-Assad and Mishal answered Rose’s direct questions. Both of them also expressed a strong desire for a comprehensive peace solution, to improve relations with the United States and bring stability to the region. Both leaders made statements that were completely at odds with many things that are said about them in American media.
Khalid Mishal, the leader of Hamas, reiterated his acceptance of the two-state solution principle. He repeatedly said that Hamas would live peacefully side by side with Israel if a Palestinian State were created within the borders of 1967 Palestinian territories, with East Jerusalem as its capital and with Palestinians in Diasporas given the right of return. Yes, these conditions are not exactly what Israel wants, but it is also far from what is claimed about Hamas, that its only goal is to destroy Israel and that it does not believe in the two-state solution.
Mishal stated very clearly on record that he would accept Israel in the land it acquired between 1948 and 1967. As for denouncing violence, he maintained that as long as Israel occupied Palestinian lands, they had the right to resist. Resistance can end, he argued only with an end to occupation. He also pointed out that Palestinians under Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas had given up resistance and recognized Israel and received nothing.
The interview was at times surreal. There is a moment in which Mishal, the leader of Hamas, lectures America on democracy. He explains what democracy really is – accept election results without dictating electoral outcomes. He reminded Rose about America’s credibility gap in the region. We advocated democracy and when Hamas won we turned our back on democracy. America is indeed the oldest and the most durable democracy in the world. Yet, such is the hypocritical legacy of American foreign policy in the Middle East, that a man who has not lived a single day under democratic governance in his life, lectures America about democracy.
Bashar Al-Asad was a revelation, even if you disagree with him. An Arab leader, who is cogent, articulate, does not lose focus of the subject at hand, more analytical and less rhetorical, and speaks reasonably good English, is unusual. If the Syrian track bears fruit, Al-Assad could fill the gap left unoccupied by late President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and the late King Hussein of Jordan – an articulate Arab leader with pivotal influence in East and West.
He too expressed strong support for a comprehensive peaceful solution in the region. He made some very interesting observations about how the United States misunderstands the region and therefore is less effective diplomatically than for example Turkey. He talked about learning the lessons from decades of conflict and defeat and recognizing the need for good regional relations. He reiterated the need for the U.S. to be an honest arbiter if it seeks to have a positive role in the region.
Al-Assad identified the struggle to remain secular as Syria’s biggest challenge. When Rose pointed to the contradiction in Syrian secularism and its support for Hamas and Hezbollah and alliance with Islamic Iran, Al-Asad responded that Syria supported the causes (struggle against Israeli occupation of Palestine and aggression against Lebanon) they represent and not because Syria was like them. He also tried to assure Rose, that once there was peace in the region and Israeli occupation was ended, people would recognize Israel and its right to exist. But this would not happen now under Israeli occupation and aggression.
I don’t expect many Americans to believe what these two Arabs are saying. But listen to the interviews anyway. If nothing, some of you will realize how grossly misunderstood the Middle East is in America. You may not like what you hear, but you will at least know what Hamas and Syria are really saying, and not what they are routinely accused of saying.
Muqtedar Khan is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Delaware and a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).