05 February 2012

What is Happening with Hamas?

When I read, in January, that Khaled Meshaal, officially the leader of Hamas since the 2004 assassination of its founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was stepping down, I was a bit surprised.

As the BBC reported, though no one knows for sure where he is situated in the organizational hierarchy, for all practical purposes, he was the face of the organization:
Hamas's covert structure means that it is not known whether he has authority over the remaining Gaza hierarchy, but from his position in exile in Damascus, he has played an important role. 
Unhindered by the travel restrictions imposed by Israel on Hamas leaders in Gaza and the West Bank, Mr Meshaal has represented the group at meetings with foreign governments and other parties throughout the world.
Why would he step down, I wondered at the time.

Around the same time, rumors began to float that he was planning to move his Damascus headquarters to either Jordan or Qatar. Meshaal has Jordanian citizenship and King Abdullah seemed rather keen to help the move. And a week after his announcement, Meshaal went to meet with King of Jordan.

What is interesting in all that is the fact both Jordan and Qatar have been pushing for a regime change in Syria, Hamas' protector and Meshaal's current landlord. Moreover, King Abdullah's father made peace with Israel in 1994 and Jordan expelled Hamas in 1999. Why would a sworn enemy of Israel go back to the country that expelled them in the first place.

Clearly, a radical change is taking place.

The same week Meshaal was visiting with King Abdullah, Hamas Prime Minister of Gaza Ismail Haniyeh left to meet with Ahmadinejad.

In other words, Hamas is at a crossroads. One road taken by Meshaal will bring Hamas closer to peace by changing its hardline stance against Israel and by bringing the organization closer to other important actors in the region. The other, taken by Haniyeh will keep Hamas where it is, an ally of Syria and Iran along with a combative stance against Israel.
But analysts believe Meshaal has decided to end his close association with a Syria now in crisis, to pursue reconciliation with the pro-peace Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and to soften his anti-peace stance. 
"Meshaal has been showing a tendency towards more flexibility. He is sincere about accomplishing reconciliation and he was flexible about President Abbas' peace moves," Gaza political analyst Hani Habib said. "His position did not go down well with Gaza leaders."
But it is not just a question of reconciliation with Abbas (they did get together last May and I took that as one of the first signs of change in the region), it is a lot more than that:
Israeli analyst Matti Steinberg of Haifa University says Meshaal "quite clearly wants to advance reconciliation with Fatah" and to speak about a Palestinian state within the lines created by the 1967 Middle East war, rather than recovering the Palestine that existed before Israel's creation in 1948. 
He is also ready to suspend the military jihad against Israel and go along with Abbas's idea of "popular resistance" through non-violent mass protests, Steinberg said. Hamas hardliners insist on the right to "armed resistance." 
Analysts speculate that Meshaal's goal may be to end the isolation of his movement and make it an essential partner in Middle East negotiations, one that Israel and the West can no longer afford to ostracize as a terrorist group.
Meshaal's recent moves, i.e. announcing his departure, leaving Syria and getting close to Jordan and Qatar make sense if he is getting ready to participate in a peace agreement with Israel.

That means that Meshaal is anticipating that such a deal is more or less imminent. This is a radical U-turn for an organization that wants to eradicate any trace of Israel from the region using armed struggle. Suddenly, they are talking about 1967 borders and peaceful popular resistance.

It also means that he realizes that Syria is no longer able to provide cover for Hamas, as it is about to experience a radical regime change and maybe a prolonged civil war.

It further means that Meshaal does no longer value Hamas' alliance with Iran and is trying to find new sponsors and protectors in the region. That indicates that he believes Iran's ascendancy peaked and regardless of the outcome of its confrontation with the US, Iran will have to accept a secondary power position behind others like Turkey.

On that point, if you remember, a few months ago, I reported that the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs confirmed news stories that Hamas sought Turkish approval on the Gilad deal before they signed on the diotted line. In other words, Hamas has been looking for new sponsors long before the new rift between Haniyeh and Meshaal hit the papers.

If you have been reading this humble blog for some time, you would recognize Meshaal's points, as I have been stubbornly (and I am told, sometimes foolishly) claiming these same notions since last May.

I also suggested that the rise of the Islamist forces should not be seen as a direct threat to Israel. The Brotherhood has been very careful to accomodate the Egyptian military and they are unlikely to force the issue right away. Nor do I expect other Arab countries to rise up against Israel.

But the presence of Islamists will be quite effective in persuading the Israeli right wing that they can no longer pretend that the Palestinian problem might go away by itself if they continued to do nothing.

Interestingly, Meshaal seems to agree with me on that last point as well and he is following the example of the Brotherhood in Egypt.
Some in Hamas believe there is no need to take a softer line with Israel because Islamists now in the ascendancy in the region would deter any repeat of Israel's 2009 offensive to stop rocket fire from Gaza, in which some 1,400 Palestinians died. 
Steinberg disagrees. "The Muslim Brothers don't want trouble with Israel from Gaza while they are consolidating power in Egypt, which will take several years," he says. "Meshaal is accommodating himself with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt."
To go back to my starting point, if this analysis is correct, then Meshaal is not stepping down. He is getting ready to take over the entire movement and to get rid of the old guard and their outdated policies.

It he succeeds, we will have an interesting situation. My eyes will be on Netanyahu and Likud to see if they match Meshaal's radical move.

On their side, it will also require a very similar purge (Lieberman and Yishai) and early elections sometimes this year.

If you don't focus on the stupefying sound and fury, we live in interesting times.

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