By Fadi Elhusseini
Many observers saw in Tony Blair’s meeting with head of Hamas’ political bureau Khaled Meshaal a breakthrough that may take Hamas out of the bottleneck and may lead to a long-term truce between the movement and Israel. Yet, with the ensuing meetings Meshaal held, it appears that the crux of the issue surpasses initial assessment, as this meeting comes in the midst of entangled developments and may perhaps lead to various domestic, regional and global transformations.
After years of estrangement, Meshaal met with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. Following this meeting, Meshaal met with the Russian foreign minister Lavarov, the Turkish president Erdoğan, and recently with the former representative of the international Quartet on the Middle East Tony Blair. According to the Guardian, this meeting was the fourth raising suspicions of a prospective long-term truce between Hamas and Israel.
Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that Israel agreed to a sea route between the Gaza Strip and Cyprus in return for a long-term ceasefire with Hamas. The news and suspicions coincided with contradictory statements from Hamas officials; some confirmed while others refuted the story. Leaks suggested that Hamas’ consultative council had a quasi-unanimous stance on such deal, with the reservation of only two leaders from the movement.
These developments corresponded with many statements by Turkish officials who urged the need to settle the conflict between Israel and Hamas. They also declared their rejection of any hostile activities by Hamas aimed at Israel from the Turkish soil, amid Israeli-Turkish talks of re-normalising relations.
The Palestinian Authority rebuffed any side agreements between Hamas and Israel, a position adopted by many Arab countries, led by Egypt. This position stems from the fact that any “individual” side agreements between Hamas and Israel will override the legitimate Palestinian leadership represented by Mahmoud Abbas. It may also lead to the de facto separation of the Gaza Strip from the rest of the occupied land of Palestine in 1967, and thus can be considered an official declaration of the death of any efforts for a Palestinian national reconciliation.
The damage is not limited to the Palestinian internal affairs, but it would rather weaken the Palestinian official diplomacy, which was able lately to achieve remarkable accomplishments. To elaborate, at the aim of aborting any Palestinian diplomatic activism, it becomes a fundamental Israeli strategy to delegitimise the role of the Palestinian leadership. Having said that, since the Palestinians were marred with their division since 2007, i.e. Hamas and Fatah, Israel has been using this to propagate its own narrative that the Palestinian Authority, headed by Abbas, does not represent all the Palestinians. A unilateral deal between Hamas and Israel would unequivocally pour in favour of Israel’s narrative and said strategy.
Well, when trying to analyse the motives behind Israel’s decision to make a truce with an organisation it considers terrorist and must be uprooted, it appears that the issue outdoes the Palestinian- Israeli conflict itself, and prolonging the Palestinian division. In modern history, Israel has always tried to secure one front when it expects or plans an action on other fronts. In other words, when expecting or planning a war against the southern front (Gaza Strip), it seeks to secure the northern from Hezbollah. Similarly, when it expects an action from the northern front, it plans on securing the southern front with Hamas.
However, it has become obvious that Hezbollah is not the sole menace for Israel in the north, but rather Syria, with all its complicated components. This argument becomes more realistic when linked to the news saying that major powers are seeking arrangements for the secure exit of Bashar Al-Assad from Syria, without a realistic preparation for an alternative. This would definitely lead to more chaotic conditions in the Israeli northern front, and unexpected reaction by Hezbollah after losing his chief protector and supplier in the Levant.
Whether the suspicions of a prospective Hamas-Israel truce deal were accurate or not, what is definite is that the Blair-Meshaal meetings lay in a wider context that includes new regional arrangements for Syria for the post-Al-Assad era. As such, the following meetings that gathered Meshaal with the Russian foreign minister and with the Turkish president rests in the same circle, noting that regional and global powers recognised the important role of non-state actors in the region as one of the main outcomes of the so-called Arab Spring.
As such, Russia will never accept to let down the Al-Assad choice without securing a new caretaker of its interests in this spot. The same way, Turkey shares with Syria long borders and entangled interests, including the issue of Kurds and the fear from a Kurdish entity in northern Syria. Thus, none of the regional powers are left with luxury to choose their new allies. The US follows these developments closely, and was able to sort a new arrangement with all Middle Eastern parties, including Iran (following the nuclear deal) and Russia. From one side, some US reports referred to the fact that the withdrawal of Patriot missiles from Turkey was done in coordination between Russia and the US. On the other side, this decision satisfies Kurds and makes the US appear more neutral, and not fully supportive of the Turkish stance from the PKK. Meanwhile, the US didn’t irk the Turks, as in return it opened the door wide for military cooperation, especially in fighting “Islamic State”.
These calculations were there on the table when the Saudi king received Meshaal, yet this meeting added a new element: the war in Yemen. The current situation in Yemen underscored the necessity for new players, particularly as the conflict in Yemen has been taking a sectarian hue. Hence, the Saudi-Hamas meeting constituted a stepping stone for bigger role for the movement in the region and for the whole Arab order per se. After a four-year hesitation period, Arab regimes have begun to absorb the ramifications of the so-called Arab Spring, building new strategies and forming new alliances, basically with the new emerging player: non-state actors or movements.
In the same vein, Sarkis Naoum finds that the nuclear deal was another reason behind the Saudi- Hamas meeting. According to Naoum, this deal pushed the Saudis to move ahead in order to retain the cards it used to possess and gather the forces that share similar ideology, religion or nationalistic values.
He referred to a research issued by a US centre that the main aim for Saudi Arabia is to build a Sunni alliance and an Arab coalition to face an anticipated Iranian threat, to end the Houthis’ growing influence in Yemen, and to improve its relations with Sudan (through improving relations with Hamas), as well as to drive Sudan away from Iran.
In a nutshell, it is obvious that regional players started to reorganise their cards and ratify their alliances and strategies to cope with the rapid changes that came on top the Iranian nuclear deal, the probable fall of Al-Assad and the rising role of non-state actors, mainly movements of a religious nature.
Fadi Elhusseini is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Sunderland, UK, is an Associate Research Fellow (ESRC) at IMESC, Canada and a Palestinian diplomat in Egypt