By Zvi Bar’el
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has been full of surprises in the last couple of months. First came his announcement that the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations should be given a chance. Then came the reconciliation agreement between Fateh and Hamas, which was followed by Meshaal’s confirmation that he would not run for another term as director of Hamas’ political bureau. And last but not least, he and his family left Syria and now he is looking for a new shelter for Hamas’ headquarters.
While the so-called “Arab Spring” has passed through the Palestinian territories without leaving a tangible mark, one cannot ignore its effect on the Palestinian political infrastructure.
The major outcome of the crisis in Syria — apart, of course, from its impact on Syria — is Hamas’ perception of its new status there and the implications this could have on its relations with Iran. Before the events in Syria, Hamas was still able to maneuver between its Arab affiliation and its Iranian sponsor. Now, it looks as if Hamas is obliged to adopt a single course of action and realign itself with the Arab coalition against Syria and Iran. Meshaal’s historic visit to Jordan, accompanied by the Qatari crown prince, attests to this new direction. While Hamas’ debacle has thrown into Jordan’s lap a new opportunity to be involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, far more important are the implications for the parties involved.
Despite some criticism of the renewal of the Palestinian-Israeli dialogue hosted by King Abdullah of Jordan, Meshaal and his colleagues are proceeding with Palestinian reconciliation efforts. Indeed, it appears that even Israel has realized the futility of its objection to reconciliation between the two Palestinian factions and has placed no preconditions on its willingness to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Yet, while Meshaal has declared that Hamas will abandon military struggle against Israel, or rather postpone it to a “later date”, thus complying with one of the Quartet’s conditions, he is still avoiding any recognition of Israel and refusing to abide by the agreements that were signed between Israel and the PLO.
This is where developments in Egypt may create a complex dilemma for Hamas. While the Muslim Brotherhood, who have become the largest party in the Egyptian parliament and may run the government, are emphasizing their adherence to the Camp David accords, hence their recognition of Israel, Hamas may find itself at odds with such declarations. While it remains to be seen what kind of foreign policy the Muslim Brothers will adopt, it is already clear that they wish to maintain good relations with the United States. It is also clear that the Egyptian military will adhere to its previous pro-American stance, thus forcing the government to toe the same line. Needless to say, this policy implies “normal” relations with Israel, even if the term “normal” will be redefined.
Could Hamas adopt a different policy and detach itself from that of the Muslim Brothers? Judging from its past decision to stick with Iran and Syria despite the Brothers’ antagonistic position, it is obvious that Hamas — while ideologically seeing itself as part of the Muslim Brothers — can be independent of its parent organization when this fits its foreign or domestic policy requirements. Still, economic, social, and political pressures have already caused changes in its traditional position. Like the Brothers, Hamas might be willing to proceed with a dual course: letting the PLO conduct negotiations with Israel while avoiding recognition of Israel.
A different dilemma faces the Quartet, which finds itself entangled between a stubborn right-wing Israeli government and a PLO that sees the only solution in United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state.
So far, the Quartet has been able to keep the Security Council from granting recognition and to pressure the parties into meaningful negotiations. This position has leaned in part on what was considered an unbridgeable division between Gaza and the West Bank, between Hamas and Fateh. The formal pretext was that since the PLO did not represent Gaza, it could not claim that it represented the entire Palestinian state.
This pretext has been crumbling since the Palestinian reconciliation agreement was signed. And now that the Quartet deadline for reaching a negotiated agreement on the next stage of Israeli-Palestinian talks has passed, it looks like the UN will need to deal with a conflict that was once managed locally between Egypt, Israel, the United States and the Palestinians, with the Quartet relegated to the role of spectator.
A few months ago, when revolutionary movements in some Arab states had amazed the world’s leadership with their courage and insistence on toppling dictatorial regimes, little if any attention was paid to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now, when Egypt is struggling to maintain a modicum of law and order, Tunisia is trying to find its path between conflicting ideologies, and Syria is in shambles, it is the Palestinians who may reap the major benefits of the Arab spring.
However, for Hamas’ change of mind and Palestinian reconciliation to become useful tools in the peace process, there is a need for a new approach by the members of the Quartet toward a “new” PLO that comprises Hamas and toward the idea of an independent Palestinian state. That is, if the international community decides to align itself with the real domino effect that was launched by the Arab Spring.
Zvi Bar’el is analyst for Middle East affairs of Haaretz daily. His book, “When Cars Fell from Heaven”(in Hebrew) was published last year. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons.org.