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Michel Warschawski: Calling Hamas a Palestinian al-Qaeda, and facing a new Arab world, Netanyahu’s only tool now is war

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. When Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Congress on Tuesday, he spoke about Hamas. And here’s an excerpt of what he had to say.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Israel is prepared to sit down today and negotiate peace with the Palestinian Authority. I believe we can fashion a brilliant future for our children. But Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by the Palestinian version of al-Qaeda. That we will not do.


JAY: Now joining us again from Jerusalem to discuss the prime minister’s speech is Michel Warschawski. He’s the author of the book On the Border, and he’s the cofounder of the Alternative Information Center in Jerusalem. Thanks for joining us again, Michel.


JAY: So speak about Netanyahu’s attitude towards Hamas. And, first of all, in his speech, Netanyahu says that Hamas–the leader of Hamas opposed the killing of bin Laden. And he uses that as a sort of set up for calling Hamas the Palestinian al-Qaeda. What do you make of that?

WARSCHAWSKI: First, it’s not true. What Ismail Haniyeh said was that the way he was killed is unacceptable for any civilized person and that he was a fighter. But he made very clear that he disagree with his political strategy and his terrorist approach. But for Benjamin Netanyahu it doesn’t matter. If you are a Muslim and if you are a Muslim party, a Muslim current, you are the devil and you are all the same. Whether you are al-Qaeda, you are the government, the party in power in Turkey, you are the Muslims in Boston neighborhoods, you are a terrorist or a potential terrorist, an enemy of humanity and civilization.

JAY: To be fair, within Hamas–I mean, I have spoken to people myself–I mean, there are people that would like to see the elimination of the Israeli state, certainly a Jewish state. There are trends within Hamas that, I mean, you could describe as racist. There are people that certainly would advocate more use of violence or terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. I mean, this does exist in Hamas, does it not?

WARSCHAWSKI: Hamas is a mass movement, and where you can find very different positions. What is important is, first, a general trend, and the trend is much more pragmatic both in domestic Palestinian relations with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, and second, towards their own program. Today, the official program of Hamas is that they will not sign a peace agreement with Israel, but they will respect an agreement signed by others, meaning by the Palestinian Authority leadership, and second, that they would suggest an unlimited ceasefire. It’s a Muslim concept which is not peace, but it is a kind of ceasefire, a long-term ceasefire, meaning forever.

JAY: With the agreement between Hamas and Fatah and the PA that Netanyahu’s saying tear up, in that agreement there’s a deal to have a government which is of technocrats for a period (I think it’s around a year), then to hold elections. Hamas has said repeatedly that if a majority of Palestinians want a two-state solution, they will agree to it. But none of that, of course, appears in Netanyahu’s speech. Quite the contrary–again, he calls them al-Qaeda. So if there is any sense of moving forward with, quote-unquote, a peace process, does this sound like another attack to try to unseat Hamas? Or is it really just a defense of the status quo? As long as Hamas is there, we can’t negotiate, so there’s no process.

WARSCHAWSKI: The question is much broader. The problem of the Israeli government is how to reassess an Israeli centrality in the framework of the Arab Spring now, in the framework of tremendous changes in this area. And the only tool they have is to make war. The only tool they have to assess their importance and the fact that they remain a main or the main actor will be by war. So the first thing they are doing is they bomb Gaza. Bombing Gaza is not enough. It’s terrible for the population, but it’s not enough to assess anything. It’s like a father coming back from hard labor: going home, the first thing he do, he’s hitting the small child to feel good, to feel he still has power. What is worrying is all the declarations concerning the North, concerning the new weapon and the quantity of weapon Hezbollah has. And this is the second Israeli reflex, not only bombing Gaza, but also to prepare and to weaken the border with Lebanon, and by doing so, humiliating Iran. They are not stupid enough to attack Iran. Iran is presented as the main enemy, as the one who should be–as the [incompr.] of the 21st century, and which should be destroyed. They are not so stupid to attack Iran, which can retaliate in a very, very strong way and make the Israelis pay a very high price for such an attack. So they will hit Iran through Lebanon and through Hezbollah by a new war in Lebanon. But never Israel has succeeded in all its adventures in Lebanon. And despite the dozens of thousands of civilians killed under Israeli shelling and bombs, they succeeded to resolve anything in Lebanon neither concerning the border nor concerning the domestic issues of Lebanon [incompr.]

JAY: The elephant in the room, so to speak, about Hamas is Egypt. The new Egyptian government is not willing to isolate Hamas the way Mubarak did. They’ve in fact facilitated this new agreement now, something Hamas resisted because of Mubarak. They’ve stopped building these steel barrier that’s supposed to block the tunnels coming out of Gaza. There’s been big, big demonstrations outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo. They’re dealing with, as you said, a different Arab world, but particularly on the issue of Hamas. Qatar also has good relations with Hamas and is including them in the process. So you have two quasi-American allies both including Hamas. But Netanyahu does not seem to pay much heed to this.

WARSCHAWSKI: No, he cannot. Again, he’s in his old neoconservative clash of civilizations strategy, and he will be more and more isolated internationally and having less and less understanding with the White House policy. There are already informal and secret talks between American officials and the Hamas, as we have had before as a kind of pilot fish with the Europeans. And Hamas will be part of the international diplomatic game. This is for sure.

JAY: Yeah. In fact, I’ll play a little clip from President Obama’s speech a few days before Netanyahu spoke to Congress. I thought in fact maybe this was maybe the most interesting piece of Obama’s speech, and where he actually divided or split with Netanyahu far more than on the ’67 border question, and that’s when he sort of opened the door to Hamas. Here’s what Obama had to say.


BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT: The recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel. How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist? And in the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question.


JAY: So, Michel, Obama’s sort of opening the door, to some extent, to Hamas, and that’s a far cry from Netanyahu calling them the Palestinian al-Qaeda. In fact, maybe in both of these speeches this the biggest point of dispute between Obama and Netanyahu.

WARSCHAWSKI: I fully agree with you on that point. And, in fact, evolution of Hamas itself, and of the international community concerning Hamas, is very similar to the evolution with the PLO some 30 years ago. The PLO [snip] even start recognizing the state of Israel. It considered the state of Israel as an enemy. And gradually, with secret diplomacy, the position of the PLO change, because through international mediators, they had guarantees that they will have something in exchange. If the American administration wants to play a role–what Russia is doing right now, in fact, and what Turkey’s doing right now–it will be to serve as a kind of go-between and to say, I heard from the Israelis that if you make that statement, they will do this or that step to prepare the change of official attitude of Hamas towards Israel and to open a way of recognition which will be quite similar to the one of the PLO. But in order to do that, it’s like a tango: you need to be two. And on the Israeli side, there is no will whatsoever to make the necessary moves which can help and which are preconditions for any change of Hamas policy.

JAY: And when you look at the standing ovation to that statement calling Hamas the Palestinian al-Qaeda, I mean, all those people in Congress know what Obama said in his speech, and Democrats and Republican members of Congress stood and practically roared their approval. All have to know what the significance of this means. It means there’s no process of any kind of negotiations. And it almost sounded like support for a declaration of war against Hamas, the roaring applause.

WARSCHAWSKI: Yes. But, you know, it’s like public opinion. The opinion of the members of the House, they express their opinion, they express the opinion they believe to be of their voters. But when the administration is determined to do something, they will follow. When they understand from the president, from the White House, from the State Department this is national interest for the US, then they start thinking and reacting in a more rational way. We have seen it with Bush the father when he decided to freeze $13 billion loan guarantees in order to build the big coalition against Saddam Hussein. He got the support. There were a lot of opposition. Lobbies were very active. But when it’s national interest, no lobby can play.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Michel. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And don’t forget to donate buttons here. We’re in a fundraising campaign, a matching fundraising campaign. If you want to see more interviews and stories like this, then we really need you to do that.

End of Transcript

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Michel Warschawski is a journalist and writer and a founder of the Alternative Information Center (AIC) in Israel. His books include On the Border and Towards an Open Tomb: The Crisis of Israeli Society.