BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In this week's Palestinian election, the ruling party Fatah came in second. Hamas, a group best known in the West for deploying suicide bombers, won in a landslide. It was Hamas' first real political campaign but it didn't run on its longstanding promise to eradicate Israel. Instead, it stumped under the slogan "Reform and Change," and most agree that's why it did so well. The vote was really a message for Fatah.
MARWAN ABU ZALAF: It's a protest vote, saying that you did very badly the last 10 years, you dragged us down into the mud; we want something else.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marwan Abu Zalaf is editor-in-chief of Al Quds, a leading Arab-language daily published in Jerusalem. He says Fatah's long legacy of inefficiency, corruption and cronyism has provoked widespread disgust, whereas Hamas increasingly was providing social services the Palestinian Authority did not.
MARWAN ABU ZALAF: They started to spend money on those projects that were neglected by the P.A. And, of course, poor people, when they go to a clinic and they see it funded by Mr. X or Mr. Y, they don't care, as long as they get the service done.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now a potent political force in the region, Hamas seeks to burnish its image in the West. To that end, the Guardian newspaper reported this week Hamas has hired a media consultant named Nashat Aqtash to hone its message and, said the Guardian, offer helpful hints, such as "Don't talk about destroying Israel," and "Don't celebrate killing people."
NASHAT AQTASH: I was hired to facilitate some media connection, to train some people on addressing foreign media, how to say the idea, the same idea, the accurate things without changing truth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nashat Aqtash teaches media at Birzeit University in Ramallah.
NASHAT AQTASH: Hamas does not want to change the image. Hamas want to inform you correctly. That's it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you recommend that Hamas tone down its rhetoric about, you know, pushing Israel into the sea?
NASHAT AQTASH: No. Hamas itself removed that verse from this platform, not because of my advice, actually.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How long ago?
NASHAT AQTASH: In the platform of this election.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: True, the group did not renew its traditional call for Israel's destruction, but it still asserts, in a recently-published election manifesto, that, quote, "Historic Palestine is part of the Arabic and Islamic land, and the Palestinian right to this land has no statute of limitations." That's confusing, a confusion heightened by the multiplicity of opinions voiced by Hamas spokesmen throughout the Arab world. Al Quds editor Marwan Abu Zalaf.
MARWAN ABU ZALAF: One day they say we will negotiate with Israel through a third party. The second day they say we will talk with the Israelis but only about things that are concerning humanitarian cases. Another spokesman says another thing, like, "We will not deal with Israel at all. They're our enemy. We have to eradicate them." They have conflicting statements, so the credibility is not strong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: After the election results came in, the European Union said it would reconsider the hundreds of millions of Euros it provides in annual support to the Palestinian authority, and President Bush declared he won't deal with Hamas until it renounces violence.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: If your platform is the destruction of Israel, it means you're not a partner in peace.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For Hamas, it's a public relations puzzle, figuring out how to hold onto the foreign money while holding to its founding mission, to fight for every inch of land it claims is illegally occupied by Israel. Marwan Abu Zalaf says it's the old struggle over definitions. Are they terrorists or freedom fighters?
MARWAN ABU ZALAF: Some people say what were the French doing in the Second World War against the German occupiers? The resistance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hamas media consultant Nashat Aqtash.
NASHAT AQTASH: I don't understand how come you accept that America itself and French people themselves removed the German occupation and now you don't understand the meaning of 60 years of Israeli occupation over Palestine. We are not killers because we love to kill. We are fighting an occupation. Maybe in doing this, some mistakes has been done.
YOEL ESTERON: All this P.R. effort is really pathetic, in my view.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yoel Esteron is managing editor of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest circulation daily.
YOEL ESTERON: You know, Brooke, this is really an old propaganda used in the past and it was never bought, neither by the Israeli public nor by the international community. You know, if you want to make peace with a neighbor, you first stop, you know, shooting at him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Esteron says that no pollster, no political analyst, no one predicted a Hamas majority.
YOEL ESTERON: It's an earthquake. Nobody really knows how to deal with it. We're now waiting to see what they're up to, these guys. They need to say, "This is over. We're not a terrorist group any more. We are in the government and we declare that we stopped terrorist activities." The burden now are on the leaders of the Hamas to show the world and Israel that they're smart enough [CHUCKLES] to change their ways.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nashat Aqtash.
NASHAT AQTASH: Even if we remove Hamas and Islamic Jihad from the map, there are seven million Palestinians living in the refugee camps in miserable situation. Each one of them could be a new Hamas. All the Palestinian factions are saying this: we are not going to stop resistance against occupation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sounds like stalemate. So far, Hamas has mostly held to a cease-fire, but it has not renounced violence. Meanwhile, other groups still launch attacks and civilians on both sides still die. So where does that leave the West, specifically Europe and the United States, the targets of this new public relations effort?
ETHAN BRONNER: The international community is in a conundrum about how to handle things like Hamas, Hizbullah, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and so on, because all of these are the best-organized political forces in their societies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ethan Bronner is deputy foreign editor of the New York Times.
ETHAN BRONNER: The Western and certainly the American goal in these societies is to bring about democracy, and so it's very hard to know how to square the circle. I mean, how do you bring about democracy without allowing what some view as the serpent into the garden? And then the question is by doing so, are you producing a moderation in these groups or are you having, you know, one person, one vote, one time? And that's the big dilemma that's faced by American foreign policy in this question.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: No matter how it's packaged, there's little chance that the nations of the West will accept Hamas' claim to kinship with the French resistance. And now that it's the ruling party, officially responsible for the Palestinian people, Marwan Abu Zalaf says it makes no sense to cleave to a position that won't bring peace.
MARWAN ABU ZALAF: In the end of the day, if you are a government, you have to sit with them and negotiate with Israelis. They have to be your partners. There's no way around it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Abu Zalaf says that ultimately everyone will have to come back to the table. He recalls that once the PLO was similarly cut off.
MARWAN ABU ZALAF: Things changed. People change, situations change, politics change – and ideologies change.
ETHAN BRONNER: I think that the American officials looking at Hamas are fairly open-eyed about the history of this group.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ethan Bronner.
ETHAN BRONNER: But they also, some of them harbor hope that they can be brought into more moderate policies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Including, perhaps, our President.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Peace is never dead 'cause people want peace.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When the PLO assumed political power, it finally accepted the existence of Israel. It's a reality immune to image management. Political leadership is not reducible to public relations or even principle. In the 19th century, Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck said that "politics is the art of the possible." But when it comes to this conflict, perhaps a better dictum was issued in the last century by economist and diplomat John Kenneth Galbraith. He wrote, "Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable." If Hamas wants to be a real political player, Nashat Aqtash may want to revise his talking points.