I’ve just finished reading Hussein Ibish’s excoriation of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal’s victory speech in Gaza last week, in which he accuses Meshaal of “unhelpful escalating rhetoric” against Israel. Along the way, Ibish dishes out a fair amount of rhetorical hyperbole himself, calling Meshaal’s speech “one of the most cynical, damaging and dangerous speeches in the history of the Palestinian national movement” and “profoundly toxic from every perspective.”
It’s certainly true that Meshaal’s speech, which he delivered as he made his first-ever visit to Gaza on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Hamas and the end of Israel’s latest military campaign, Operation Pillar of Defense, struck a note of resolute defiance.
Here’s a translated excerpt from an Al Jazeera report:
“Palestine is our land and nation from the [Mediterranean] sea to the [Jordan] river, from north to south, and we cannot cede an inch or any part of it,” he said. “We fight Zionists, not Jews. We fight whoever occupied our land, regardless of religion … Statehood will be the fruit of resistance, not negotiations,” Meshaal told cheering fans.
Hamas does not belong to the PLO, but Meshaal said a year ago that it and other factions were “on the path to joining” it.
While this is certainly strong – even incendiary – stuff, are we really to believe it was “one of the most cynical, damaging and dangerous speeches in the history of the Palestinian national movement?”
First of all, let’s take a closer look at the context in which this speech occurred. Shortly before Meshaal’s visit, Israel had leveled a devastating military assault against Hamas in Gaza. During two weeks of fighting, Hamas sent numerous missles into Israel – some of which landed close to major population centers in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The violence was eventually quelled through a US/Egypt brokered ceasefire.
In other words, this is what it took to elicit the US’s active engagement with Israel and Palestine. Years of IDF crushing of Palestinian non-violent demonstrators have garnered nothing but silence. The PA’s attempt to gain recourse through the UN was met with active opposition from the Obama administration. It was only the armed resistance of Hamas in Gaza that managed to bring Hilary Clinton to the region and actively engage with the Israelis and Palestinians. In the end, what kind of message does that send to the Palestinian people?
So yes, Khaled Meshaal, told a cheering crowd that “statehood will be the fruit of resistance, not negotiations.” But should we really be so surprised? While negotiations have proved disastrous for the Palestinian people, armed resistance seems to be the only way they ever catch the attention of the international community. Did Ibish really think Meshaal was going to get up on the podium and call for a resumption of the peace process?
Although those who consider Hamas to be an unrepentant “Islamist” terror organization would likely scoff, Meshaal and other Hamas leaders have in the past made noteworthy overtures that indicated a willingness to engage in a US-led peace process (albeit fundamentally different than the one embodied by the follies of Oslo.) Most notably, following President Obama’s Cairo speech (which signaled at the time, a different American attitude toward the Muslim world), Meshaal responded with an important 2009 policy speech in which he welcomed a “change of tone” from Obama. He went on to attribute this new American tone as the fruit of the “stubborn steadfastness of the people of the region, while resisting in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan” and stressed that it was not merely a change of tone but a change of policy that was needed to make progress in the region.
Meshaal added that Palestinians would judge the US not by its words but 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.”
Whether or not one believes these overtures were genuine, we’ll never really know. Meshaal’s opening went utterly unregarded by the Obama administration, who refused to deal with Hamas and chose to maintain its support of Israel’s crippling siege of Gaza.
Given this history, are we really to believe, as Ibish would have it, that Meshaal’s recent speech is one of the most “cynical, damaging and dangerous speeches” Palestinian history? Or is it merely a reflection of its time – a moment in which the Obama administration has thoroughly squandered its own stated desire to usher in a new era of engagement in the Middle East?
In the end, Meshaal’s speech was simply that – a political speech. And history (particularly Middle East history) has shown us time and again that parsing a politicians words are a notoriously bad way to predict what he/she will eventually agree to. In the words of the very insightful Israeli blogger Noam Sheizaf:
The bottom line is that none of this matters. It’s all a huge red herring. Nothing a leader says now determines the way he will act in the future. Public statements are important only to a limited extent and agreements depend on the continued willingness of both sides to uphold them. As long as both parties feel that they benefit from a certain status quo, or that their interests are better served than by any alternative, the deal they reach could hold. If one party is coerced into signing but doesn’t have its interests and desires addressed, all the nice declarations won’t matter. Twenty years after the historic peace deal that should have ended the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but didn’t, you’d think that people would get it.
The arguments about the meaning and importance of the Hamas charter are all but identical to the decade-long debate over the PLO charter. How much effort and time was put into forcing Arafat to change it, and how little did it matter when negotiations collapsed in Camp David and violence returned. The same goes for today: Given the right pressure, a certain Palestinian leadership could be made to promise Israel anything. Yet none of it would matter if you don’t address the fundamentals of the conflict: The occupation, the refugees, the holy sites, the settlements, the access to land and to water. The leaders would change their minds and if they don’t new leaders (“more extreme”) will come. Reality will prevail over rhetoric.
So let’s be honest. Meshaal didn’t mince his words – but in the end it is actions that ultimately matter. And in this regard, Meshaal’s words were considerably less damaging to the cause of the Palestinian national movement than the Netanyahu government’s announcement that it would build 3,000 more units in the E1 region, which would successfully cut the West Bank in half and cut it off completely from East Jerusalem, ending any reasonable hope for a viable two state solution. Sadly, the only response this deeply damaging action elicited from the Obama administration were words such as “counterproductive” and “we urge restraint.”
To my mind these kinds of words are considerably more dangerous to the cause of a just peace in Israel/Palestine.
Excellent post. How about adding a feature to your blog that would allow readers to easily post your articles on their Facebook page?
I agree with Noam’s comment & with you about the meaning of words v. action. But, the effort you expended to put the speech in context reveals how it will be used in the propaganda war. I don’t know if Meshaal can cultivate a new spirit among his people, but fighting words are not constructive.
No essential argument from me. I would only say that Meshaal’s speech was not designed to cultivate a new spirit in his people but rather to maintain his political credibility and relevance with his constituency, which is what political leaders have to do. Propaganda wars may get loud and ugly at times, but at the end of the day, I don’t think it ultimately makes much of a difference who wins them. Again, as we both seem to agree, actions speak louder than words.
“fighting words are not constructive.”
And neither, it seems, are peaceful words, or non-violent actions. Those result in punishment as well. The mildest-mannered dog will bite if put in enough fear of its life. Why does it outrage so many that when attempts to use diplomacy, politics, the legal system, and non-violent resistance bring more crushing punishment, human beings will meet violence with violence of their own.
When will the demand be made that Israel renounce violence?
I agree with you, Brant. Khaled Meshaal’s speech was definitely not “one of the most cynical, damaging and dangerous speeches in the history of the Palestinian national movement.” I’m aware of many much more cynical, damaging and dangerous speeches given by Palestinian leaders.
What is remarkable about this speech is that it is the most recent cynical, damaging and dangerous given by a Palestinian leader.
Meshaal got up in front of his people and promised them:
“Palestine is our land and nation from the [Mediterranean] sea to the [Jordan] river, from north to south, and we cannot cede an inch or any part of it,” he said.
“We fight Zionists, not Jews. We fight whoever occupied our land, regardless of religion … Statehood will be the fruit of resistance, not negotiations,”
You can choose to call that “a note of resolute defiance.”
Given the fact that seven million Israelis live on that land, I call it an exhortation to endless strife. By the way what percentage of Zionists are not Jews?
I don’t see how or why you would defend Meshaal as a leader of any Palestinian movement. The Palestinians need less Meshaals not more. Are you really advocating more violence to achieve justice for the people of the region? That’s what he’s advocating. It’s not working for either side.
One more thing. As any Rabbi knows, words are important. They can not and should not be ignored or excused, especially words from leaders who take it upon themselves to influence others.
Yes Boris, words are important. I only wish you had read mine more carefully. I’m actually a bit flabbergasted that your take away from my post is that I’m “defending” Meshaal or that I think his words should be “ignored” or “excused” or that I believe the Palestinians need “more” leaders like him.
I’m resisting the impulse to go over the essential points in my post again for you because I really don’t expect it would make much of a difference.
Ibish is right.
A part of the context that you left out is the recent campaign (overwhelmingly successful) by Mahmoud Abbas and the PLO to obtain nonmember state status in the UN. Meshal’s remarks, taken in context, represent an emphatic rejection of the PLO’s approach (including possible appeals to the International Criminal Court). Meshal was, in effect, promising that Hamas would reject all standards of international law and ignore the considerable diplomatic standing that Palestine enjoys in much of the world, and instead simply rely on violence and terrorism.
The PA’s acquisition of non-member state status in the UN was certainly an important diplomatic breakthrough. My point is not to argue the relative merits of the PA vs. Hamas. That is for the Palestinian people to determine. As an American citizen, however, I’m dismayed that my government actively attempted to block the PA’s attempts in the UN and remains silent on Israel’s ongoing crushing of Palestinian nonviolent resistance – and under these circumstances we shouldn’t be at all surprised when Meshaal/Hamas trumpets the success of armed resistance.
So far the recent successful campaign to obtain non-member state status has resulted in severe and very real on-the-ground punishment by Israel and the United States.
As for rejecting all standards if international law, that’s the pot calling the kettle black! Israel is the prime example of a habitual lifetime offender. Let us count the ways…
“…that’s the pot calling the kettle black!”
Nonsense. I am in no way suggesting that Israel consistently respects international law. But that is no excuse or justification for Hamas to despise and reject it, too.
If all Palestinians supported Hamas’ ideology, then the only reason to support them would be to take sides in an ethnic conflict in which one side is seeking vengeance against another. In that case, you can count me out, along with the most of the rest of the world. Real justice will not be served by whitewashing the desire that some people have for bloodthirsty vengeance. Fortunately, Hamas’ ideology is not representative of the beliefs held by most Palestinians.
Actually, Hussein Ibish’s article is quite interesting. I hope that many readers will click through and read it as I did. It’s very interesting to get of the intra-Arab politics of the situation. For those not familiar with Ibish’s background, this is from his Wikipedia page:
“Hussein Yusuf Kamal Ibish is a Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. He was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1963. He has a Ph.D. in Comparative literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is active in advocacy for Arab causes in the United States. He is weekly columnist for Now Lebanon. He describes himself as an agnostic from the Muslim-American community.”
I was hoping you would have something to say about this, and you did not disappoint.
Excellent, well-reasoned analysis – thank you.
I see. Both you and Noam Sheizaf have brought back the formerly discredited “Orientalist” view that says “you know, Arabs like blowing out hot air, they don’t really mean what they say”. If I were to make a comment like that I would be called a “racist” by the “progressives”. Do you really think he can stand up in front of his people, several million of them, and lie about the basic goals of his movement? He has to live with them, not with the Western “progressives”. Ultimately he has to face a historical reckoning with his own people, not with you.. Do you believe he can give up his people’s demands just like that, even if he wanted to? Arafat told Clinton at Camp David he would be assassinated if he made concessions on his peoples non-negotiable demands. I think it is the height of arrogance for the “progressives” to decide for him that he really doesn’t mean what he says.
You also completely ignore the effect these words have on the Israeli populace. The so-called “peace process” is already largely discredited, this simply extinguishes it furtehr. We here have already faced thousands of rockets from HAMAS and their HIZBULLAH allies and thousands of Israelis were killed or wounded in their suicide bombing campaign. Their threats are no merely “political rhetoric” for us. I realize that your whole focus is to ignore Israelis’ views of things and somehow convince outside forces (US, EU, UN) to impose some sort of Israeli capitulation, regardless of the consequences, which you in the US aren’t going to feel in any event. Well, it isn’t going to happen. No one can force Israel to do anything that we view as being opposed to our vital interests, and Mashaa’s speech has brought a important clarity to us regarding the ultimate aims of our Arab enemies.
“I think it is the height of arrogance for the “progressives” to decide for him that he really doesn’t mean what he says.”
I think this is a misrepresentation of what Brant wrote; he never suggested that Meshal did not mean what he says.
“…thousands of Israelis were killed or wounded in their suicide bombing campaign.”
I have no desire to minimize the horror that suicide bombings have caused Israelis, but it is also true that a far greater number of innocent Palestinians have died or been wounded as a result of Israeli occupation and colonization since 1967, and that this occupation and colonization preceded any suicide bombings.
For this and other reasons, it is important for the occupation of those territories to end as soon as possible. I wonder if this is what you call “capitulation”, and if prolonging occupation and colonization is what you call your “vital interests”. If so, then you are probably right: a growing number of people and countries in the world are seeking to oblige Israel to respect international law and drop its commitment to oppose Palestinian sovereignty and self-determination in any form.
Brant, Sorry for skimming some of this, and responding to a partial digestion of the contents…
Meshaal also said that the release of Palestinian prisoners will be achieved by kidnapping Israeli soldiers to exchange them with thousands of Palestinian prisoners. Yes, that’s another “successful” method, and per your perspective, legitimate, since it was successful – so every method or approach that was successful is legitimate? On the other hand, the PLO, although still gets “slapped” for a much more peaceful approach to peace and progress, was able to make headway in the UN, in terms of standard of living and civic progress (without a blockade on the West Bank), etc. – isn’t that considered success/achievement? do you only see the success that comes from violence? BTW, I feel that the violence that Israel exerts against the Palestinians does not help Israel’s security and peace, on the contrary – it undermines them, but some people think that violence is a necessity to security – I see it the opposite way – interestingly, when it comes to violence from the Hamas, you see it as successful (and justified?).
Happy Chanukkah!! Shlomo
Shlomo, “successful” and “justified” are two different things entirely. I never wrote that I believed Hamas’ approach was justified or “legitimate.” (It is notable, however, that according to international law, peoples have a right to resist military occupation – including armed resistance, but that’s a subject for another discussion.) My point was that our country turns a consistently blind eye to the brutality of the occupation (which includes Israel’s crushing of non-violent resistance) and blocks Palestinians’ attempts to make diplomatic gains. At the same time, the only time we actively engage with the conflict is when Palestinians take up arms. In the end, what kind of message do we think that sends them?
Happy Hanukkah to you and yours as well!
Sometimes it’s good to be flabbergasted. It’s important for you to be aware of the messages you are actually sending your readers.
I read your post and your subsequent comments very carefully. My comments reflected the conclusions that I drew from what you wrote.
You wrote in your post, “So let’s be honest. Meshaal didn’t mince his words – but in the end it is actions that ultimately matter.”
You also wrote in response to a comment “I would only say that Meshaal’s speech was not designed to cultivate a new spirit in his people but rather to maintain his political credibility and relevance with his constituency, which is what political leaders have to do. Propaganda wars may get loud and ugly at times, but at the end of the day, I don’t think it ultimately makes much of a difference who wins them. Again, as we both seem to agree, actions speak louder than words.”
Both statements seem to say that inflammatory words don’t matter as long as no actions follow. You also quoted an Israeli writer who agreed with your take on the difference between what people say and what they do. I respectfully disagree with the premise that words are not important because politicians often don’t act upon them.. Harsh actions often do follow harsh words. Ask the parents of any young suicide bomber.
You certainly did defend Meshaal’s speech from Hussein Ibish’ s “excoriation.”
You mentioned Meshaal’s “noteworthy overtures to engage in a US led peace process.”
Don’t you think those statements legitimize Meshaal just a little bit?
I said the Palestinians need less Meshaals. I don’t think it’s a good idea to defend his speech or his actions. Do you disagree?
With respect, please don’t tell me what message I’m “actually” sending my readers. I obviously can’t control your emotional reactions to my words, but please don’t presume to tell me what I really mean.
In answer to your final question, no I don’t think the Palestinians don’t need more Meshaals. But the point of my article was not to defend Meshaal’s message. (I wrote it was “incindiery,” which I believe makes it fairly clear what I personally thought of it.) The point of my post was not to discuss the merits or demerits of Meshaal or his speech, but rather to explain the context behind his words – and particular to point out the way US policy enables leaders like Meshaal.
I did not set out to “legitimize” Meshaal’s speech – I argued that the US and Israel have actually been legitimizing Hamas themselves through their actions, which have sent the Palestinian people the message that armed resistance works much better than UN diplomacy or non-violent resistance. There is a huge difference between explaining a context and defending a message. I happen to believe that root causes matter in the world.
I never wrote that “words do not matter as long as no actions follow.” Those are your words, not mine. I quoted Noam Sheizaf, who wrote that politicians’ words are a poor gauge of what they will eventually agree to. And I compared Meshaal’s recent speech to Netanyahu’s recent actions in the West Bank and argued that the latter action was much more damaging to the cause of peace.
I hope this makes my “actual” message clearer for you.
Just to let you know, I read your post similarly as Boris read it.