Sunday, February 05, 2006

Beauty out-argued by the Beast

On Friday night, I watched James Rubin interview Hamas leader Dr Mahmoud Zahar. One would have expected Rubin to be fairly savvy about foreign policy, diplomatic in his approach, and quick on his feet. He was after all once a top State Department policy adviser to Madeleine Albright, and became the State Department's chief spokesman.

Unfortunately, it was immediately apparent that Mr Rubin, in his new role as a SkYNews anchor, has a very narrow conception of the parameters of the Middle East debate, as well as a supercilious manner and unpleasant arrogance.

In fact Rubin was comprehensively owned during the interview. Despite his thick accent, Dr Zahar is one of the most articulate and clear-thinking Palestinian spokesmen I have seen in a very long time. I offer the following précis of the interview as an example :

Rubin :Do you acknowledge that the very possibility of your own election is a sign that negotiations work?

Zahar: No. We held elections even at the height of the occupation and intifada. All previous negotiations with Israel have failed.

Rubin : When will the bloodthirsty Palestinians stop murdering Israeli children?

Zahar: When the Israelis stop killing ours.

Rubin : When will you renounce terrorism?

Zahar: The US has refused to define terrorism in the United Nations. What are you asking me to renounce?

Rubin : When will you hit only military targets?

Zahar: When the Americans and Israelis do.

At this point, Rubin gave up with a flurry of facial gestures conveying exasperation. I used to rather like listening to Jamie Rubin, during the Kosovo war. I still cannot understand how he can have sunk to such a low intellectual level. Throughout the interview, he seemed incapable of understanding that Zahar had not only answered his questions but refuted the ideological assumptions underlying them.

Zahar, on the other hand, seemed very different from the irrational and ranting Islamic fundamentalist we are used to seeing. Furthermore, I have my doubts about equating Hamas with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Credo of the Muslim Brotherhood is above all authoritarian – don't ask questions about matters above your head, leave it to your leaders, that sort of thing. The Palestinians, on the other hand, ever since the days of the First Intifada, the Intifada of the Stones, have shown an ability to organise democratically and a commitment to some sort of popular control. We shall have to see how this works out in practice and whether Hamas will degenerate into the kind of venality and influence-peddling that so disfigured Fatah even in its heyday. Perhaps the fact that it is a Palestinian rather than an Egyptian organization is grounds for hope that it will be responsive to popular feeling should the mood in the West Bank swing towards some accommodation with Israel.

Personally, I feel that's mostly up to the Israeli authorities. Whatever one's feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Palestinian support for Hamas is a demon of Israel's creation. And the fact remains – more Palestinian children are being killed than Israeli ones.

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