Hamas may be headed for an extreme makeover in the corporate mass media. Yes, Hamas, the "terrorist" Palestinian party supposedly sworn to the destruction of Israel. At least, that's what you'd believe if you get all your news from America's mass media, where virtually every article about Hamas has included that ominous description as if it were indisputable fact.
For years, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal has been saying that his party will accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, which means de facto acceptance of the Jewish state of Israel, with the two states living peacefully side by side. Since none of those facts fit the prescribed script for US journalists, they were simply omitted.
Now, though, there's a glimmer of change on the horizon coming from the nation's two most influential news sources, The New York Times and The Washington Post. These are the trendsetters, the newspapers that other news editors across the country read regularly to find out the latest limits of what can count as news and what can be offered to the public as fact.
In early February, Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner reported on a meeting between Hamas and Fatah leaders to advance their plans for a unified Palestinian government. A few days later, the Post devoted an editorial to the same topic. The big news: neither the article nor the editorial offered as fact the once obligatory claim that Hamas is dedicated to the violent destruction of Israel.
On the contrary, Bronner suggested that while Hamas will maintain its "approach of resistance," it might well adopt compromising and nonviolent tactics: "Some analysts argue" that Hamas "would soon undergo some of the changes that Islamist movements elsewhere in the region are seen by some to be experiencing.... senior defense officials in Israel see a significant shift happening in Hamas.... Hamas is learning that governance is more important than terrorism." A Palestinian academic told Bronner that, "Western governments are dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and it is only a matter of time before they will meet with Hamas as well."
The Post editorial agreed, stating that "some Palestinian analysts speculate that Hamas is headed toward embracing the patronage - and the nonviolent Islamist political model - of the Brotherhood or Turkey's Justice and Development Party." It sent readers to an earlier article by the Post's Israel correspondent, Joel Greenberg, offering detailed evidence of a "moderating" and "pragmatic" trend in Hamas, including a retreat from violence.
Meshal has "raised the option of 'popular resistance,' a term for the unarmed protests that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has encouraged in the West Bank," Greenberg reported, quoting Meshal: "popular resistance is a program which is common to all the factions." Meshal did reserve the right to use violent resistance, but another Hamas official explained that "how we use it, and when we use it, is something different."
The Post's editorial speculated that there may be a debate within the Hamas leadership on the use of violence, and it made the outcome of that debate the crucial question. As long as armed resistance "is Hamas's doctrine, Palestinian unity will do more harm than good. Those who seek Middle East peace must hope that if the Abbas-Meshal accord goes forward, it will trigger an Arab Spring for Hamas." It's a real surprise to see the WaPo, which has generally been to the right of the Times on this issue, now offering hope for a "moderate Hamas" that the United States can deal with.
It's a bigger surprise to see the WaPo editors focusing solely on the violence issue. For years, the US government has insisted it will not have any dealings with Hamas until that party meets three conditions: renounce violence, recognize Israel's right to exist, and agree to abide by all (always unspecified) prior agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. To overlook the latter two issues and focus only on renouncing violence - the direction Hamas is already taking - is a major shift on the part of perhaps the most influential editorial board in the country.
"Bad guys" can turn into "good guys" in the mass media amazingly quickly. That's what happened to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority just a few years ago. If Hamas gets the same treatment, bringing the media image in line with the facts, it will open up political space for the Obama administration to pressure Israel to make compromises for peace.
Right now such pressure is too politically dangerous because the vast majority of Americans have swallowed the myth of Israel's insecurity: the outdated image of Israel "fighting for its life," surrounded by enemies sworn to destroy it. So any moves to support the Palestinian cause can easily be portrayed as weakness in the face of aggression, posing a major risk to Obama in an election year.
If Hamas were no longer seen as a violent threat, the whole myth would lose its credibility. Then the administration would have a lot more political freedom to push Israel to the peace table, where the best interests of the United States - and of the Palestinians and Israelis, too - could be served. Maybe, just maybe, that shift is already underway.