A Talented Diplomat

The comments Ismail Haniyeh made at Friday's conference in Gaza show something about his character. On almost every issue he discussed, Haniyeh made contradictory remarks.

Over the last few weeks, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has come to be seen as the most prominent figure in the Hamas leadership. His colleague, Khaled Meshal - the Damascus-based head of the organization's political bureau - and Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar have occasionally made fiery declarations; but Haniyeh's style is reserved, diplomatic. He does not disparage his rivals in Hamas, and it is possible that in the near future, he will manage to build a partnership with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who left yesterday for another trip abroad.

On Friday, Haniyeh opened a conference in Gaza on the right of return, and the comments he made there show something about his character. On almost every issue he discussed, Haniyeh made contradictory remarks.

He did this, for instance, when discussing the document drafted by the jailed secretary general of Fatah, Marwan Barghouti, and his imprisoned colleagues from other organizations - a document that was publicized over the weekend and that includes clear elements of concession on the part of Hamas, primarily recognition of the 1967 borders. What does Haniyeh have to say about it? "It's an important document, which will serve us in our national dialogue, and it requires additional intensive study." At the same time, he also mocked the plan, saying, "the initiative for this document came out of one jail, Hadarim [Tel Mond], and not from all the jails."

Zahar, who spoke after him, in this case adopted Haniyeh's method, saying: "The prisoners are very talented people, and we're proud of them, but the information on which they based their position is partial, because of prison conditions."

Haniyeh greatly respects the Palestine Liberation Organization - "the PLO is our homeland" - but he immediately added: "In the national dialogue [a series of meetings between the various Palestinian groups that is due to begin next week], the Palestinian government will work to change the PLO, expand it and add other organizations." That is, the PLO in its present form is not particularly important. And later Haniyeh said, "we will not agree to any concessions; despite the siege imposed on us after the democratic elections, we will not concede - but that doesn't mean we are declaring war."

Haniyeh is also wary of directly attacking Jordan, which has uncovered a Hamas network there. He knows that almost no one in the territories or the Arab world believes the Jordanian tales, and he sent the secretary of his government, Ghazi Hamed, to respond sharply to Taib Abdel-Rahim, Abbas' aide, who adopted the Jordanian version of the story on Saturday. "Abdel-Rahim's comments are irresponsible and represent foreign interests," said Hamed.

In contrast to his diplomatic statements on current events, Haniyeh's comments on principles are clear and harsh. According to his historical analysis, "the Zionist entity and occupation project are retreating, while their pillars are crumbling." Haniyeh was referring to the dismantling of settlements and the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, and in this description he joins right-wing Israelis and opponents of the disengagement and convergence plans, who have repeatedly made similar comments.

In contrast, Haniyeh thinks that "the Palestinian-Arab-Islamic project" (in that order) is "strengthening and progressing." He used the refugee problem to support this contention. Fifty-eight years have passed since the Nakba catastrophe of 1948, he said, and the Israelis had hoped that the first generation of refugees would get old and die, the young people would forget about the issue and the problem would disappear. And what happened? The first and second intifadas were carried out by the children and grandchildren of those same refugees, who have not forgotten a thing. And if that were not enough, added Haniyeh, even the Israeli Arabs (the Palestinians of 1948, as the Palestinians call them), who number more than one million, continue to adhere to the right of return.

We will be able to confirm Haniyeh's skill at diplomatic maneuvering if he manages to reach an agreement over the next few days with Abbas, Arab states and the international community regarding a transfer of money to the PA treasury to enable the government to pay salaries, which are now three months late and are threatening to bring down Haniyeh's government and the PA as a whole.