Analysis of Elements of the Letter of Prime Minister Haniya to President Bush

By Jerome M. Segal
University of Maryland
June 26, 2006

1. The fact of the letter itself may be the main message. It is indicative of a desire on the part of Hamas to come in from the cold. It is similar, in this regard, to signals that the PLO conveyed to the Reagan Administration in the Fall of 1988 that led to the PLO’s meeting the US conditions for opening dialogue in December of 1988. At that time the PLO was eager for direct contact with the US, yet remained skittish about similar engagement with Israel. This of course was radically transformed by the time of the Oslo signing in 1993.

Haniya’s “come in from the cold” objective is evident in his call for “direct negotiations” between the Government of the PA and the United States, and is bolstered by the fact that Haniya chose to transmit the letter through Jerome Segal upon learning that in the period leading up to the opening of the US/PLO dialogue in 1988, Segal carried a message of PLO intent from PLO leader Abu Iyad to Secretary of State George Shultz.

2. The Haniya letter opens with reference to the fact that they are “an elected government” that came into office “through a democratic process.” Implicitly this is a “common values” appeal to the United States. The basic request of the letter is for the United States’ “to show respect for our people’s choice.” Subsequently the letter calls on the United States to “end the boycott.”

3. In the letter Haniya speaks of a willingness to establish a Palestinian State in the 1967 territories. This is a formulation similar to that found in the Prisoners’ Document, and has been widely interpreted as meaning implicit recognition of Israel. In the letter this is further bolstered by his statement that “we are prepared to offer a truce for many years.” In discussions with Haniya’s advisor, Ahmed Yousef, just before the meeting in which Haniya asked Dr. Segal to present the letter, Segal asked Yousef if there would be a standard exchange of diplomats during the truce period. Yousef responded “why not?” pointing out that they have already authorized PA ministers to have working level contact with Israeli counterparts.

The letter seeks to convey Hamas’ seriousness about the “long-term truce” by referring to themselves as “peace makers.”

4. The formulation with respect to establishing a Palestinian State in the 1967 territories, does not make any mention of the “return of the refugees to their homes,” a condition that is often attached to similar declarations when made in public statements. This absence is a mark of seriousness.

5. The dominant theme of the letter is the regional perspective and their concern for stability and security in the area. This is expressed four times in the short message:

– “We are so concerned about stability and security in the area,”

– “continuation of this situation [the boycott] will encourage violence and chaos in the whole region,”

– “We are deeply interested in stability in the area and don’t want anyone to escalate the situation,”

– “We hope the United States will encourage the Israelis to keep stability and security in the region.”

This is clearly an effort to speak to US national security concerns that transcend the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are well aware that the coming to power of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is deeply worrying in Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere.

In the letter they portray themselves as very concerned about region instability. Rather than adopting a threatening tone, they present themselves as potential partners in the promotion of regional stability. At the same time, they link continuation of the boycott of “the elected government” to “chaos in the whole region.”

One way to read this is as a recognition that they have two identities, as Palestinian nationalists and as radical Islamicists with an international agenda. They recognize the American concern with the implications of the latter identity, and are signaling that if the United States and Israel would meet them halfway, they would cooperate in being a force for regional stability.

6. Finally, it should be added that Haniya dictated the initial version of the letter in the midst of discussions with Segal about ways in which it might be possible for the Palestinian Authority to move towards the demonstration of commitment to the three “principles” enunciated by the Quartet. Seen in this light, the letter is a request for some signal from the United States that rather than trying to bring down the Hamas-led government, the US would respond constructively to positive movement by the PA in meeting the Quartet conditions. Were the US to make this decision, it would be analogous to the decision made by the Reagan Administration, in the Fall of ’88, to work with the PLO in finding ways in which they could meet the American conditions.

7. One unanswered question about the letter is the extent to which this move was coordinated with Hamas leadership in Damascus, or alternatively represents an initiative undertaken by a more pragmatic wing within Hamas. Haniya sent the letter in his capacity as Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, and the letter stresses the legitimacy attained through democratic elections. Yet at the same time, Haniya presents himself as speaking authoritatively for Hamas itself (e.g. “We are prepared . . . to offer a truce for many years”).

Jerome M. Segal directs the International Peace Consultancy Project at the University of Maryland’s Department of Philosophy.

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