Rhetoric vs. reality in the Mideast

Posted: Feb 01, 2006 12:01 AM

The Arabs tell a story about two hunters who go searching for pheasants on a cold winter's morning. It is so cold that their eyes are streaming with tears. In the brush, one pheasant turns to another and says, "What kindly creatures are these approaching. See how they cry with pity for us."

To which the older, wiser pheasant responds, "Don't watch their eyes. Watch their hands!"

Moral of the story: Pay attention not to how men appear but what they do.

In the aftershock of Hamas' landslide victory in the Palestinian elections, there's a lot of posturing going on. On all sides.

Behind all the flag-waving and the celebratory bursts of fire from the Kalashnikovs, Hamas' leaders let it be known they'll stick with the hudna, their temporary truce with the Israelis. They will never recognize Israel, they still proclaim, but, in an aside to the West, they assure us they can recognize reality.

In hopes of being recognized themselves, they speak of forming a government of technocrats. Translation: a government free of terrorist stain. They may not want to accept Israel, but they want to be accepted, and that is the chink in their ideological armor.

The official position of the Israeli government remains unchanged: It will never negotiate with terrorists. But isn't that what it used to say about Yasser Arafat's PLO? The Israelis, too, can recognize reality - and election returns.

Israeli military commanders on the West Bank already negotiate with mayors and other local officials who've been elected on the Hamas ticket; there's no other way to maintain a halfway decent peace. Once all the rhetoric clears, why not reach the same tacit accommodation with this new Hamas-dominated regime?

No need to admit it, or explain it, or rationalize it. Just do it. Accommodation is its own justification. One must live, which in these circumstances means that others must, too.

Meanwhile, America and Europe are keeping Hamas on their extensive list of terrorist organizations, as they should. It's a way to send a message: Terrorism doesn't pay. And won't pay. Those leaders of Hamas who won't renounce violence need to have their travel restricted; nor will they be received in civilized society.

As for those Hamas types who actually practice terrorism, they should know they run the risk of being inconvenienced in other ways - say, by the occasional fatal blast.

At the same time, does the West want to cut off the Palestinian Authority entirely, and, with it, the West's power to influence its direction? So long as the current truce holds, that is, so long as the terrorists aren't practicing terror, why do anything rash? Let this truce grow into peace.

A diplomatic way will have to be found to maintain contact with the Palestinian Authority (Mahmoud Abbas, still president) while snubbing the fire-eaters now in charge of a nascent Palestinian state. It can be done; a great power that has been threading its way between a free Taiwan and a Red China for years should have no great difficulty practicing strategic ambiguity elsewhere.

It is Hamas that faces the greatest gap between rhetoric and reality. If it wishes to govern effectively, it will need to cooperate to some extent with the Jewish state it has vowed to destroy. If it wants to improve the lot of the Palestinian people, who have surely suffered more than enough by now, it will need to work with us infidels in the West.

Now that it's been voted into power, Hamas can no longer afford the great luxury of an opposition: criticism without responsibility. Its constituents may now expect Hamas to deliver the order and prosperity it promised, or at least some minimal progress toward same. Fatah didn't, and Fatah is now out of power. The lesson should be clear. Great teaching tool, free elections.

Hamas was going to subvert Israel, but now may find itself subverted - by success. Because in a democratic society, with success comes responsibility. Having won at the polls, the extremists may have to moderate their position if they intend to deliver on their most appealing promises - not more war and suffering, but honest government and economic progress. So out of this apparent victory for extremism, moderation may emerge.

Life is just full of surprises, isn't it? And so is the Middle East.

For example, who would ever have thought that democracy would take root in the Palestinian camp? Or that its leaders would be made accountable at the polls? No doubt about it: Yasser Arafat is dead.

And now Arafat's ineffectual successor has been rejected, and deserved to be. Mahmoud Abbas, aka Abu Mazen, had his chance, many of them, and flubbed them all. He never confronted the militias that challenged his rule, or the corruption that undermined it, or made any headway against the poverty that still stalks his people. He called his weakness moderation, but his double game didn't fool the Israelis or, to judge from these election returns, the Palestinians.

Hamas didn't win this election; Fatah lost it. And now Fatah is engaging in the Agonizing Reappraisal that losing parties always do after losing a free election. In short, democracy is working. And may even continue to work.

In the days to come, the rhetoric on all sides may intensify. Hamas may think it owes at least that much to its zealots. And those governments that will have to deal with it, one way or another, will not want to encourage its worst instincts. So they will reply with their own unwavering statements of principle. As they should.

But it all may prove only a war of words, which sure beats the other kind. The smart money will bet on what all these players do, not on what they're saying. Behind all the fighting pronouncements, a modus vivendi will begin to emerge. Modus vivendi. That means a way of living. In this case, it means finding a way for people to live with their differences. Instead of dying over them.