On the surface, things are going well for Hamas, the Palestinian affiliate of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Unless Israel decides on a full-blown invasion of Gaza, Hamas faces no real threat to its rule over its small Islamic republic there.
The Muslim Brotherhood emerged from the recent Egyptian elections the largest political movement in the country with about 47% of the seats in the parliament’s lower house, and the Gaza/Egypt border is pretty much wide open. Moreover, on Monday, February 6 , Hamas signed an agreement with Fatah, its erstwhile Palestinian rival that controls the West Bank. The two have agreed on a new interim national unity government headed by President Abbas of Fatah, who will serve both as prime minister and president of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas has announced his commitment to move expeditiously toward new elections, which have been long overdue.
However, a major change appears to be in the offing for Hamas. The unrest in Syria threatens the current domination of the movement by its diaspora leadership, which has been based in Damascus for more than a decade. The conflict in Syria pits the Assad regime, a staunch Iranian ally, against an opposition in which the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood plays a large role. The result is an intolerable situation for the Hamas leadership located there.
Thus, most of the Hamas leadership and their families have left Syria, and Khaled Mashaal, who chairs the movement’s bureau, and his team must look for a new home. But no country has expressed willingness to offer them a base of operations, and they are loath to relocate to Gaza both for fear the Israelis will seek them out and because the move would distance them from their constituents in the Palestinian diaspora. Mashaal’s announcement of his impending retirement may signify a recognition of the dead end, provided that isn’t just be taking a leaf from Abbas’ book, as the PA president has made similar announcements on several occasions and never followed through.
Another sign of the change in the homeland/diaspora balance is the victory lap taken around the region by Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Of particular interest was his speech in Tehran, carried live on Iranian national TV, where he proclaimed that Hamas “will never recognize Israel…. The fight will continue for the liberation of the entire land of Palestine and Jerusalem and the return of all Palestinian refugees.”
Haniyeh’s Tehran proclamation is particularly important for two reasons. First, it seems to indicate that unlike the diaspora wing, the homeland component of Hamas wishes to continue its close relationship with Iran. Haniyeh’s visit and his extremist message signal that the homeland leadership will now call the shots, and in the case of Iran, fix what the diaspora leadership broke.
Second, it challenges those who suggest that the reconciliation between the PA and Hamas implies a softening of Hamas positions, a greater pragmatism or even an opening toward eventual recognition of Israel — all assumptions that have found expression in international, as well as Israeli, media. It is true that from time to time Mr. Mashaal made some ambiguous statements about a truce with Israel if it withdraws to the pre-1967 ceasefire lines and agrees to “the right of return.” But about a month ago Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon, poured cold water on suggestions of any change in the movement’s goals. “Anyone who thinks Hamas has changed its positions and now accepts the PLO’s defeatist political program is living in an illusion,” he said. And in Tehran, Mr. Haniyeh seems to have gone out of his way to lay those illusions to rest while his Hamas-Gaza colleague Mahmud Zahar used the pages of Egypt’s Al Ahram to declare Mashaal’s agreement with Abbas “a mistake.”
In the unlikely event that the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation goes through, where does this leave the Palestinian Authority as a partner in the peace process? This question, which hovers over the new reconciliation agreement, has haunted the peace process since Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections. The PA was set up by the Gaza-Jericho agreement of 1994, in which Israel and the PLO declared they were “reaffirming their determination to live in peaceful coexistence, mutual dignity and security, while recognizing their mutual legitimate and political rights.” Hamas has never made any such affirmation. As a political entity founded on the principle of mutuality with Israel, can the PA include a movement like Hamas whose tenets Mr. Haniyeh articulated so unmistakably?
The question is not only one of legal niceties. A PA in which Hamas has either a leading or a determining voice is inherently untrustworthy when it comes to negotiating peace with Israel. As Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said about the PA: “It is either peace with Hamas or peace with Israel. You can’t have them both.” Tragically, anyone who listens to Zahar, Hamdan and Haniyeh must conclude that Mr. Netanyahu is right.
Ed Rettig is director of the American Jerusalem Committee’s Jerusalem Office.