For decades, Western decision-makers have viewed Hamas as a terrorist organization that seeks to destroy the state of Israel and thus will never accept a territorial compromise based on a two-state solution.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently reiterated that assessment in a July 14, 2009, speech in Tel Aviv. Unfortunately, it also forms the basis of U.S. President Barack Obama's new approach to Middle East peacemaking. In his Cairo address, Obama refrained from labeling Hamas a "terrorist organization," but he urged Hamas to reform itself. "To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations," he declared, "Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, recognize Israel's right to exist." The message was clear: if Hamas wants to be part of a political solution to the conflict, it has to adapt to political benchmarks set by Israel, the United States, and the Middle East Quartet.

The perception of Hamas as an organization intrinsically incapable of compromise has driven Western policy for more than 20 years and remains one of the most influential dogmas in Middle East diplomacy. Western observers justify their belief that any rapprochement with Hamas would be futile by pointing to its history of terrorist attacks and the movement's supposedly inflexible ideology. They bolster their argument by referring to the Hamas charter, the group's 1988 founding manifesto, which outlines a militant doctrine aimed at "liberating the land of Palestine" by force and invokes such anti-Semitic tracts as "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

However, such critics fail to grasp the transformation currently taking place within Hamas. Today, the charter has ceased to play a significant role in the group's ideology. As early as 1990, Hamas began to distance itself from the document, which has since fallen into neglect. Although Hamas has not officially renounced the charter, no references to it can be found in any of the group's recent statements. Moreover, Hamas leaders, such as Mahmoud Ahmad al-Ramahi, the secretary-general of the Palestinian Legislative Council, have recently begun downplaying the charter's relevance by clarifying that "it should not be confused with the Holy Koran."

In turn, Western decision-makers should rethink their approach. Rather than basing political judgments on largely outdated proclamations, they should study recent Hamas policies and the movement's performance on the ground.

In 2006, Hamas began to evolve from a dogmatic organization located outside the political system into a functioning opposition party within the Palestinian body politic. This shift was followed by a transformation from a radical opposition party into the majority party of the Palestinian territories and, after the 2006 elections, the de facto governing party of Gaza. In a surprisingly short time, Hamas has largely abandoned religious rhetoric and calls for the violent liberation of Palestine, in favor of the increasingly secular and pragmatic task of state building.

Following its decision to participate in Palestinian elections in January 2006, Hamas conducted a thorough review of its political platform for the first time. Its campaign focused not on violent resistance but on promises of judicial reform, improved education and housing, as well as better health and environmental policies. The movement won a landslide victory in what was considered a democratic and fair election.

Hamas later released a "cabinet platform," in which Ismail Haniyeh, Gaza's current prime minister, detailed the movement's principles as ruling party. The document marked Hamas' transition from a radical armed movement to an aspiring governing party. It does not mention armed resistance or anti-Israeli agitation. Instead, it focuses primarily on state building and economic policies, even identifying "international investment as a basic pillar in sustainable development."

In June 2007, the collapse of the Palestinian unity government and the subsequent coup d'etat in Gaza effectively established Hamas as the governing authority there. Hamas' ruthless ousting of Fatah forces put it in an unprecedented position: for the first time in the history of the modern Middle East, a Sunni religious fundamentalist organization had gained control over a substantial stretch of territory with a homogenous population.

Confronted with the task of governing one-third of the Palestinian population, Hamas immediately engaged in state-building activities, such as collecting taxes, controlling borders, and reforming security forces. Faced with an orchestrated strike of civil servants, Hamas leaders did not dissolve government structures in order to establish "traditional Islamic" forms of governance, opting instead to staff Palestinian institutions in Gaza with loyal party activists. In doing so, they differed substantially from radical Salafi movements in Somalia or Taliban warlords in Afghanistan. Five years of Taliban rule resulted in the absence of a functioning central government, minimal formal economic activity, and only rudimentary administrative offices. In contrast to this premodern style of governance, Hamas adapted to existing institutions, established a strong monopoly on institutional power, and ruthlessly suppressed opposing Fatah activists, religious rivals from the Islamic Jihad movement, and criminal gangs.

Although Hamas is running a fairly efficient civil administration in Gaza, this should not conceal the more disturbing aspects of Hamas rule: the movement remains authoritarian, human rights violations are common, and freedom of expression has been significantly curtailed in Gaza.

That said, Hamas' decision to join the Palestinian government in 2006, and its subsequent takeover of Gaza, have led to a significant ideological softening regarding the idea of a two-state solution. In April 2006, the foreign minister of the Hamas-led Palestinian government, Mahmoud al-Zahar, indicated a subtle shift by vaguely alluding to a two-state solution in a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. After two years of diplomatic boycotts of Hamas, this message is finally getting out.

In response to statements from Obama and Netanyahu, the Hamas leader Khaled Mashal spoke in Damascus in June. He outlined a political agenda that starkly broke with the traditionally rigid rhetoric of confrontation: "At a minimum," he said, "we demand the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital with full sovereignty within the 1967 borders, removing all checkpoints and achieving the right of return." Just before Mashal's speech, Haniyeh likewise called for a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders. The significance of this change in Hamas' political stance becomes clear when compared to the uncompromising anti-Semitic language of the charter, which categorically calls for the liberation of all of "Palestine."

Mashal and Haniyeh's break with the rhetoric of the past reflects a fundamental shift within Hamas based on broad consensus. Indeed, the only open criticism of this new direction came from Hizb-al Tahrir, a radical Islamist party that enjoys only marginal support in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Although Mashal's insistence on a "right of return" may seem as irreconcilable with Israeli positions as the division of Jerusalem, his recent statements could conceivably pave the way for a historic territorial compromise.

Contrary to what Hamas leaders expected, the Western reaction to Mashal's statement has been lukewarm due to Hamas' continuing refusal to formally accept Israel's right to exist. Western observers took this apparent contradiction as tactical double-talk and quickly dismissed the notion that Hamas had changed. For Hamas, however, showing strategic ambiguity -- a de facto acceptance of Israel paired with a refusal to recognize Israel's legitimacy -- is of paramount importance. In advance of upcoming elections Hamas needs to keep its stance vague in order to maintain its own legitimacy as an Islamic Resistance Movement in Gaza and the West Bank.

Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would not only damage Hamas' public standing among Palestinians but also reduce its political leverage in future negotiations with Israel. In the words of Zahar, "[T]he PLO's recognition of Israel [in 1993] was not reciprocated by an equivalent Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state or national rights. It was a dirty game, and we are not going to repeat it."

But this refusal to recognize Israel and the resulting ambiguity need not rule out diplomatic engagement with Hamas. After all, pragmatic political concessions have often preceded abstract ideological shifts. A variety of radical organizations have followed this model of reform, including the European socialist movements of the twentieth century. These groups remained faithful to the historical commitment to class struggle and revolution long after notions of violent Leninist uprisings had lost any practical relevance. Similarly, the People's Republic of China has created special economic zones that epitomize capitalist development while zealously maintaining its commitment to communism as the state's official ideology.

Rather than focusing on Hamas' unbending symbolic positions, Western diplomats should acknowledge the organization's reduced aspirations and ideological softening. Hamas has ceased to act purely as a terrorist organization and has demonstrated that it is capable of political development and ideological pragmatism. This shift is supported by all factions of Hamas: the hard-liners in Damascus represented by Mashal, moderate detainees incarcerated in Israel, and Haniyeh's middle-of-the-road leadership in Gaza.

Unfortunately, recent reactions from Washington have been less than promising. The deputy spokesman for the U.S. State Department, Tom Casey, rejected Mashal's groundbreaking speech, stating, "Nothing has changed in terms of Hamas' basic views about Israel and about peace in the region." Focusing on Hamas' abstract ideological positions, he went on to say that "Hamas still believes in the destruction of the state of Israel and does not believe in Israel's right to exist."

Rather than reciting the same worn-out formulations, Western diplomats must acknowledge the favorable developments on the ground and abandon their policy of boycotting Hamas. Instead, the United States and its European allies should signal their acceptance of a Palestinian government that includes Hamas. Such an approach would encourage Hamas to further reinvent itself and increase the chances for Palestinian reconciliation -- opening up new negotiating opportunities for Western, Israeli, and Palestinian decision-makers. In the end, only talks without preconditions will resolve the current ideological stalemate and pave the way for a two-state solution and lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace.

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  • MICHAEL BRÖNING is Director of the East Jerusalem office of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a German political foundation affiliated with the Social Democratic Party. He is a regular contributor to German newspapers and magazines, including Die Zeit and Der Spiegel.
  • More By Michael Bröning