The changing dynamics of Palestinian politics

By Walid Salem (for Safe Democracy)

Walid Salem writes on the three different strategies that can be taken in order to deal with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: negotiating with Abu-Mazen, negotiating with Hamas, or opening dialogue with both. Due to recent success in convincing the Arab and Muslim world to lift their sanctions, the Hamas-led Palestinian government has become emboldened, and begun to circumvent Abu-Mazen‘s authority. Hamas‘ new policy positions also include the opening of direct dialogue with the Israeli government, negotiations with the governments of Jordan and Egypt, and the organization’s slow transformation from a fundamentalist group into a legitimate political force. In Salem‘s opinion, neither Abu-Mazen nor Hamas can be ignored in handling the conflict, and the best solution would be to choose the third strategy.

Walid Salem is a political analyst and the director of Panorama, the Centre for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development, East Jerusalem office.

THERE ARE MANY DIFFERENT STRATEGIES for dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. One of the most important would be to give direct support to the Palestinian moderates led by President Abu-Mazen, and to rebuild the Presidential Guard Units, and other security departments linked to the moderates.

A second, opposite, strategy would be to give direct aid to the Hamas-led Palestinian Government in order to promote the Islamization of Palestine and the entire region.

Between these two, contradictory paths, lies a third, more complex possibility: the promotion of dialogue with both Abu-Mazen and Hamas in order to make a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The promotion of dialogue with Abu-Mazen has greatly polarized Palestinian politics. Were Abu-Mazen to take a strong position against Hamas’ failure to meet the Quartet Conditions and call for the dissolution of the government, it would be a sure instigation of civil war, as warned by Palestinian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mahmmound Al-Zahhar.

In the case of a war, the armament of the Presidential Guards Unit would be carried out as extensively as possible in the hopes of crushing opposing Hamas forces.

The second strategy, of supporting the Hamas government in Palestine, has been gaining a lot of ground over this past month, with the recent success of Hamas to get many Arab and Muslim nations to lift their sanctions. The decision to free up relations with the Palestinian government was partially due to skillful Palestinian bargaining, but was also greatly aided by the recent violence perpetrated against Palestinian civilians by the Israeli government in Beit-Hanoun. The bloodshed stirred up strong pro-Palestinian sentiment throughout the region, and strengthened the incentive for Arab and Muslim nations to lift their sanctions of Palestine in support of the Palestinian people.

Since the lifting of sanctions, Hamas has been emboldened and has closed off its talks with Abu-Mazen. The moderate President is now no longer considered necessary for the composition of a National Unity Government. Slowly achieving international legitimacy, Hamas is now comfortable with the preservation of its current government, and the continuance of efforts to garner more support from the Arab and Islamic world.

With this shift in strategy, Hamas has made several policy changes: including, giving Abu-Mazen the green light to negotiate a reciprocal ceasefire in Gaza and later in the West Bank; working with Egyptian diplomats to negotiate the release of the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gila’ad Shalit; a new Mashal-Hanieh initiative to give the world six months to create a Palestinian state (the period has since been extended); and the promotion of Palestinian and Israeli dialogue in order to discuss issues of daily-life and coexistence.

There are several immediate consequences of Hamas’ policy transformations:

First, that Hamas has chosen to promote the Mumana’ah line of action (entailing abstention from making any concessions), as an alternative to Muqawamah (armed resistance).

Second, that Hamas is sponsoring indirect negotiations with the Israeli Kadima government. Much of the dialogue has been regarding the release of Gila’ad Shalit, yet the Mashal-Hanieh talks in Cairo about a Palestinian State indicate that the dialogue could touch on more sweeping issues. The Israeli declaration that it would decrease its interventions against Palestinians in the West Bank on December 4th, might give hope of possible progress, backed by the news of a possible Israeli withdrawal from five cities in the West Bank, the lifting of checkpoints, and the release of Palestinian prisoners.

Third, that Hamas plans on using Arab contacts (particularly in Egypt) in order to achieve a political breakthrough in its relations with the West. Hanieh said in Cairo last week that the Palestinian government would be looking to Egypt and Jordan for help in facilitating the lifting of sanctions against the Palestinian government.

Fourth, that with Hamas’ recent success, Abu-Mazen and Fatah will pay a lofty price in both the short and long term. Fatah already issued a sort of surrender in its Saeb Erica statement this week stating that If the Hamas government succeeds in lifting the sanctions against it, there will be no motive for its dissolution by the President.

Hamas appears now to be getting back to its tradition, set between 1967 and 1987, of concentrating more on internal Palestinian issues, rather than the fight against Israel. It is likely that in the upcoming Presidential elections, Hamas will put a lot of pressure on Fatah in order to win the Presidency away from Abu-Mazen, and take control of the PLO.

And so, as Hamas pressure on Fatah increases, they have been attempting to block Abu-Mazen’s negotiations with Israel, in order to gain the sole legitimacy as spokesman for the Palestinian people. Indeed, Mashal’s goals have become increasingly lofty. In a statement made a few months ago, he admitted that: If somebody were to suggest me as an heir to Yasser Arafat as the leader of the Palestinian people, I would accept. Yet, in order to attain such international legitimacy, Hamas will have to make huge sacrifices in the name of political flexibility.

Hamas’ direct negotiations with the Israelis, Egyptians, and Jordanians have been huge steps towards its process of political legitimation. And while, Jordan has still refused dialogue with the Hamas government, standing firm in its support of President Abu-Mazen, if current trends continue, Hamas will complete its move away from fundamentalism into the field of legitimate politics.

Increased Hamas power in politics, however, will mean the ousting of the secular and semi-secular power of Fatah. Thus, supporting Abu-Mazen either financially or through security means will be useless in the near future. Hamas would only portray him as a collaborator with the West against his own people, and he would lose any legitimacy and hopes of winning a civil war.

A workable strategy for dealing with the problems raised would be to assist Abu-mazen in the negotiation of a permanent status agreement, in order to give real substantive hope to the Palestinian people. Many only support Hamas because they feel that they have no other choice. President Olmert’s last offer can be considered a first step towards a final status agreement, despite its inability to provide solutions to the problems of refugees, the division of Jerusalem, and the full withdrawal from the West Bank.

If a real process for permanent status were to be initiated with Abu-Mazen, accompanied by dialogue for the moderation and democratization of Hamas, there could be hope for a real solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What is needed most now is to move from the two, heavily polarized paths to a third, more constructive middle ground of positive communication and dialogue.

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