In a fashion so symbolic of today’s Palestinian politics, the fate of the new Palestinian unity government was shrouded in fog up until the last minute — literally. Just hours before the inauguration announcement was made in Ramallah on June 2, Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zohri issued a threat to boycott the ceremony, labeling any government to be formed without his group’s consent to be illegitimate.
The inauguration nearly fell through over one issue; the fate of the ministry for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. In recent days, President Abbas had insisted on creating an alternative commission, which will function under the Fatah-dominated PLO, in a likely attempt to meet the international community’s demands to disassociate government funding and militant activity. Hamas, of course, opposed the demand, accusing Fatah of cowering to “Western pressure.” Ultimately, it was decided that the ministry would remain, but would be placed under the authority of Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.
This last-minute crisis and the compromising manner in which it was solved exemplifies Hamas’ overall approach to reconciliation with Fatah after seven years of stubborn deadlock. The Islamist group views the reconciliation process as its only way out from unprecedented financial crisis and political isolation, but not at any cost. Most importantly, Hamas’ behavior indicates that it understands the drive for statehood initiated by President Abbas in 2011 is slowly starting to materialize, and that it would serve them best to influence this system from within rather than risk being left out in the cold.
In this context, Hamas’ insistence on preserving the ministry of prisoners comes after a series of other key concessions. These concessions include the appointment of Fatah-aligned Rami Hamdallah as Prime Minister, the appointment of several other Fatah-affiliated technocrats for other key posts, in addition to the tacit acceptance of President Abbas’s statements regarding recognition of Israel, the endorsement of past agreements, and renouncement violent resistance. The scope of Hamas’s concessions was a focus of much attention of politburo chief Khaled Mesh’al’s May 20 Doha speech.
For an Islamist group which ultimately represents a significant portion of the Palestinian public and who won the 2006 legislative elections, such concessions cannot be taken lightly. Unquestionably, Hamas would not be making such concessions had it not been in its current financial crisis, but there is reason to believe that the group may be in the midst of a historical shift in its approach to the conflict itself and how it views the contemporary Palestinian struggle.
This shift has to do with the increasing international recognition – both psychologically and practically – in the existence of a Palestinian State. Two years have passed since the UN voted to accept Palestine as a non-member state; but it is only now, when peace talks with Israel collapsed, that this technical change has begun to manifest. The term “Palestine” is being increasingly used by European governments, diplomats, international media outlets, academic institutions, and even left-wings Israelis. “Palestine” has embassies in numerous countries, while many have reciprocated diplomatic missions in Ramallah.
It’s a geopolitical reality that Hamas can’t ignore. Alongside the group’s financial and political constraints, Hamas now has another incentive to compromise with Fatah at this time. As the State of Palestine slowly becomes a political fact-on-the-ground (or fact on the UN floor), the Islamist group is faced with a case of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them.’
But playing within the system by no means indicates an unconditioned acceptance of Fatah’s dominance. Hamas of 2014, despite its problems, is not the same Hamas of 1994: it is ready to make far-reaching concessions — pending that they serve the group’s long-term interests – but even these concessions have a limit.
Hamas’ balancing efforts will likely determine the fate of the already fragile reconciliation process. The ability of Fatah and Hamas to find creative solutions to a list of extremely complicated problems – much more complicated than the fate of single government ministry – is what the reconciliation process hangs on. Among these issues are the future of Hamas’s security apparatus, the upcoming elections, and the official government policy towards Israel. On all of these issues, Hamas will have to show sufficient flexibility, without undermining its own prestige and popular support, and of course; without compromising its own principles of resistance.
If history tells us anything, it is that Hamas has the ability to do just that; namely, to adjust itself to reality without abandoning its core principles and interests. Its shift from a mainly social-oriented charity group in the 1980s to joining the armed struggle; its co-existence with Arafat’s regime during the Oslo years; and even the status quo with Israel in the Gaza Strip since 2007 – all serve as powerful testimonials for the group’s competence to adjust to reality, settle ideology and pragmatism, and to mix short- and long-term goals. The theological principle of Sibr (patience) – always served as a means to justify these political compromises, as it does today.
But as the ministers of this new government step into their offices, one should bear in mind that Hamas’s Sibr is a means to an end and not an end in itself. It is adhered to only as long as it keeps Hamas on a route toward realizing its strategic goals in the future. In case President Abbas’s West Bank forces continue to arrest Hamas members; or in case the 25,000 strong Izz-a-din-al-Qassam paramilitary wing is are forced to relinquish their arms, the delicate balance between ideology and reality might break, inflicting a serious blow to reconciliation efforts. As the fate of these issues is supposed to be determined in the coming months, it seems that Hamas’s maneuvering capabilities will be put to the test sooner rather than later. At any rate, it’s a question of ‘when’, rather than ‘if’.