A brief perusal of headlines in the regional media would appear to confirm that, of the two main Palestinian movements, Fateh and Hamas, the latter has recently been the object of the most attention from Israel's neighbors, particularly Egypt and Jordan.
To be sure, Palestinian Authority/Fateh leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) periodically makes the rounds of regional capitals to update leaders about the peace process with Israel. And in Cairo, Riyadh, Doha and Sanaa he discusses possible mediation for renewed unity talks with Hamas. No one refuses to see him and he is treated with respect. But then nothing happens.
On the other hand, Jordan recently renewed its relations with Hamas after nearly a decade of alienation and despite its charges of out-and-out sedition against Hamas two years ago. And Egypt persists in mediating first ceasefire and then prisoner-exchange talks between Hamas and Israel. One is left with the impression that Arab recognition of PLO leadership of the Palestinian people is increasingly pro-forma and ritualistic.
The Arab world appears to accept that Hamas is here to stay in Gaza and, at least as a political actor, in the West Bank as well. Hamas' relative success in enforcing the current ceasefire or "tahdiya" has helped persuade the Arabs that it can "deliver" on more than terrorism. Its recent pledge to Jordan to avoid meddling in internal state affairs, particularly in coordination with the local Muslim Brotherhood, and to refrain from planning terrorist operations from Jordan against Israel, is seen as at least temporarily credible.
Yet Jordan and Egypt's readiness to deal with Hamas does not, or at least not yet, reflect a major shift. At the strategic level, both Arab states remain committed to a two-state solution, i.e., to Fateh's approach, not that of Hamas. Jordan is training West Bank security forces loyal to the PLO/PA. Were either Jordan or Egypt or both to commit forces to deploy in the West Bank or Gaza as part of a new conflict-mitigation effort, their orientation would be pro-Fateh and anti-Hamas. And both Jordan and Egypt remain highly suspicious of, if not openly hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood that, in Egypt, spawned the Palestinian Hamas and in both countries threatens regime stability.
Still, the evolving facts of life in Palestine are undeniably antithetical to this strategic approach. Jordan's rapprochement with Hamas, in particular, appears to reflect an assessment that the Annapolis process has failed. The Bush, Olmert and possibly Abbas governments are nearing their end, Bush's Middle East ventures are widely deemed a failure and there is little if any prospect of a serious Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the coming 6-12 months. Hence King Abdullah--the leader of a small country surrounded by strong and often conflicted neighbors--has understandably chosen to cover all possible options. He has done so, incidentally, not only regarding Palestine but also, judging by his recent diplomatic schedule (visits to Baghdad and Russia, his foreign minister's visit to Tehran, attempts to improve relations with Syria), concerning strategic developments in the greater Middle East: the emergence of a Shi'ite-led Iraq, the strengthening of anti-American interests in the region and a Russian resurgence.
Interestingly, in the months ahead we in Israel can expect of Cairo and Amman quite different dividends from their growing ties with Hamas. Because Egyptian Sinai borders directly on Hamas-ruled Gaza, Cairo is likely to deliver more of the same: increasingly tough monitoring of the Sinai-Gaza border and mediation between Hamas and Israel over a prisoner exchange. Hamas is understandably less than enthusiastic about Egypt's refusal to open the Rafah crossing unconditionally and has hinted at a preference for an alternative prisoner-exchange mediator like Germany. But because Israel remains firmly behind Egypt's efforts, little is likely to change here; nor does a prisoner exchange appear likely in the near future.
Jordan, on the other hand, does not share a border with Hamas (until and unless the Palestinian Islamist movement takes over the West Bank--a prospect both Amman and Jerusalem are likely to oppose vehemently). Nor can Jordan compete with Egypt in terms of wielding inter-Arab clout vis-a-vis Hamas. But one initiative we might gradually become aware of in the months ahead is a Jordanian effort to seat Israeli and Hamas intellectuals and public figures together in quiet informal talks.- Published 1/9/2008 © bitterlemons.org
The Israeli strategy for dealing with the Palestinians has changed significantly since the first agreement was reached between the two sides in 1993. This change is forcing Jordan and Egypt, unwillingly, to adapt.
Until the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by a Jewish extremist, the Israeli vision of a solution was to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and allow for a Palestinian state to emerge. Certainly, this was not a vision in line with international law. At the negotiating table, Israel was bargaining over the exact location of borders as well as aspects of Jerusalem and the issue of refugees. Away from the negotiating table, Israel was creating facts on the ground, expanding and creating settlements, in an attempt at directing the outcome of negotiations.
Nevertheless, the two sides, as well as interested and involved third parties and the international community in general, were promoting a solution to be reached through negotiations that involved two states on the basis of the 1967 borders. It was a strategy pursued, albeit more hesitantly, in the years between the assassination of Rabin and the assumption to power of Ariel Sharon.
Historically, both Egypt and Jordan were relieved of the Palestinian burden by the vision of the two-state solution. The Palestinian struggle was, and remains, a highly emotional one for Arab publics and especially the publics in these two countries. But the Oslo process allowed both countries to take a step back from the conflict, culminating in the late King Hussein's decision to disengage from the West Bank and support the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people with the objective of achieving an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza.
Yet even during these years when the Likud did not dominate Israeli politics, Ariel Sharon clung to his long-held belief that if there were a need for an independent Palestinian state, Jordan should be that state. Sharon claimed the West Bank as part of Israel and in any case saw Jordan's population as majority Palestinian, hence such a solution made sense to his rightwing extremist mindset.
Thus, when Sharon took power in 2001 there was an "evolution" in Israel's strategic vision. Israeli leaders have continued to pay lip service to the idea of a two-state solution. But on the ground, Israel has in fact been taking unilateral steps to determine the future of the occupied territories and shape their relations not only with Israel but also with Egypt and Jordan. While negotiations have restarted and are ongoing, they function primarily to give Israel time to implement this new strategy.
In fact, Israeli practices strongly contradict Israel's verbal commitments in negotiations. Israel is gradually dividing the polities of the West Bank and Gaza from each other. At the same time, it is reducing the dependency of these two areas on Israel. This is more obvious in the case of Gaza although it is slowly becoming clear in the West Bank.
The de facto separation of Gaza from both the West Bank and Israel, combined with the brutal siege Israel has imposed on the impoverished strip of land, has left Gazans little choice but to deepen their linkage with Egypt one way or another. And while Egypt has no interest in such a process it has little choice but to acquiesce.
This explains the active role Egypt has taken in both internal Gazan politics as well as in mediating relations between Israel and Gazans and between Palestinians generally, by sponsoring sessions of dialogue between Fateh and Hamas and other factions.
Something similar can be expected in the West Bank, particularly once Israel has completed the building of its separation wall. This wall, in addition to separating Palestinian areas from each other, will separate the populated parts of the West Bank from Israel. This will of necessity create de facto dependence on someone else and that can only be Jordan or through Jordan.
While Jordan is less involved in domestic Palestinian politics than Egypt, we are witnessing an increase in movement between Jordan and Palestine, in addition to an increase in economic relations and interactions across the River Jordan. There are new projects; Jordan supplies electricity to the Palestinian side of the Jordan Valley, including to Jericho. This coincides with news, which Hamas has confirmed, that Egypt is supplying fuel to Gaza. It's possible that the recent resumption of reconciliation efforts between Hamas and the Jordanian government is part of this trend.
Jordan and Egypt are adapting to the shift in the Israeli vision because they have little choice. They are unwilling participants in a unilateral Israeli strategy that spells the end of a negotiated two-state solution.- Published 1/9/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Jordan-Hamas: the historic and strategic meaning
by Asher Susser
Jordan's recent widely publicized resumption of contact with Hamas should be seen through the wider lens of the historic and strategic context. In the summer of 1999 King Abdullah II, shortly after his ascension to the throne, expelled the Hamas leadership from Jordan. The recent resumption of contact with Hamas was the first significant reversal of Jordan's almost decade-long confrontational stand toward the organization.
Hamas' expulsion from Jordan was a reflection of the young King Abdullah's shifting priorities in comparison to those of his late father King Hussein. For Hussein, the Hamas presence in Amman was a card to play against Yasser Arafat in Palestinian politics, from which he never really withdrew. For Abdullah, far more focused on Jordan of the East Bank, it was a political nuisance and a potential domestic security problem. But now, after nearly a decade on the throne Abdullah II is far more confident in the saddle. Moreover, in the Jordanian elections in November 2007 the Islamists were battered into virtual parliamentary insignificance by massive fraud, sanctioned if not directly orchestrated by the regime.
As usual in Jordan, the regime has immeasurably more control over its own house than it has regional influence. Jordan is not a major Middle Eastern power and has never been able to control the regional context in which it operates. It is here that Abdullah II, like his predecessors, encounters challenges that are the creations of others and are extremely difficult for Jordan to contend with effectively. In the last few years, Jordan has been wedged between two major regional zones of instability and chaos: Iraq to the east and Palestine to the west. For the Jordanians, this has been a period of prolonged and intense anxiety, constantly concerned by the potentially horrendous fallout for the Hashemite Kingdom of disintegration in Iraq or Palestine or both combined. Jordan, therefore, seeks to do all in its limited power to stabilize its immediate vicinity.
It is worthy of note that the renewed contact with Hamas came more or less in tandem with an official visit to Iraq by King Abdullah II in mid-August, the first by any Arab head of state since the overthrow of Saddam. For Jordan both moves, toward Iraq and Hamas, are apparently part of a strategic reassessment and an exercise in damage control in the wake of the dramatic changes in the regional order since the US invasion of Iraq.
The crushing of Iraq removed the gatekeeper from the Arab East who had kept Shi'ite Iran at bay for decades. The overthrow of the Baath paved the way for a Shi'ite-dominated Iraq, and with Hizballah constantly on the ascendant in Lebanon, Iran's regional influence has reached new heights unprecedented in the modern era. Not only is Iran a major Gulf power, but it now has a significant presence in the eastern Mediterranean through its proxy in Lebanon, Hizballah, and its ally, Hamas, in Gaza.
It was none other than King Abdullah II who, as early as December 2004 warned of the "Shi'ite crescent" that was emerging in the region. The Sunni Arab core of the Middle East is shrinking in the face of Iranian regional ambition and clout. Abdullah's recent visit to Iraq, for whatever it was worth, was an effort to keep Iraq as close as possible to its Arab brethren rather than have it wantonly drift entirely into the Iranian-Shi'ite orbit. The contacts with Hamas are part of the same effort, and being Sunnis and not Shi'ites, Hamas has potentially much stronger intrinsic ties to the Sunni Arab core than to Iran.
Hamas' victory in the elections in early 2006 and then its takeover of Gaza in mid-2007 are indicative of a dramatic historic shift in Palestinian politics. It is not that Abu Mazen is weak or that Fateh is in disarray, though both of these are true, but more profoundly it is that secular Palestinian nationalism is in decline, as is the case with secular nationalism in other parts of the region as well. With Arabism and secular politics in retreat and Iranian influence and Islamist politics on the rise, the Jordanians are simply reading the writing on the wall and coming to terms with reality as best they can.
Jordan is losing its faith in the capacity of the Palestinian national movement to deliver on either stability or peace with Israel. Hamas, as the "tahdiya" seems to suggest, can deliver, if not on peace with Israel then at least on some form of stability and control, more so than the Palestinian Authority has been able to do in recent years and more than it will probably be able to do for any time in the foreseeable future. As far as the Jordanians are concerned, if it is Hamas that can secure the Palestinian front then so be it.
The Jordanians, as is their wont, are making pragmatic not ideological choices. This is not about adopting the Hamas program, abandoning the two-state solution or moving away from the peace with Israel. It is all about stabilizing the immediate vicinity and the home front. Thus the feelers put out to the east, in Iraq, and the probing with Hamas to the west, are essentially two sides of the same strategic coin. Only time will tell if these maneuvers work as intended by the Jordanians.- Published 1/9/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Professor Asher Susser is a senior fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
by Walid Salem
Whether those supporting the moderate leadership of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas admit it or not, Hamas appears to have won. Now, before Islamists around the world start celebrating, it is important to note that the region, let alone the world, is far from embracing hard-line fundamentalists. Hamas, for the record, has made some important ideological and practical changes, the most important of which was the "tahdiya" (ceasefire-like quiet).
The signs of Hamas' victory can be seen all over. From the success of the siege-breaking peace boats to the partial opening of the Rafah crossing with Egypt and the serious talks Hamas leaders are holding with Egyptian and Jordanian intelligence chiefs.
Part of the reason for Hamas' success is the fact that the region and the world have little choice but to accept the reality that emerged in February 2006 and that Hamas in June 2007, with its takeover of Gaza, served notice was not going away.
Another reason is global and regional changes. The Russian-Georgian struggle exposed Washington's geopolitical weakness, a result of its military overstretch in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also comes at a time when George. W. Bush, a president with the lowest approval ratings in decades, seems to have blinked. America is near agreement on a timetable for a withdrawal from Iraq and Washington clearly lacks the stomach for a confrontation with Tehran. The Iranians have called Bush's bluff and seem to have succeeded.
Israel too has blinked. To its north, Israel has been incapable of preventing Hizballah from re-arming, while Tel Aviv consented to a prisoner swap not long ago that clearly favored the Shi'ite group. The Lebanese national unity government, meanwhile, is yet another sign that hard-line rejectionist regional and international positions are not producing results.
Politically things are stalled. Israelis are now preoccupied with elections for a new leader of Kadima and will soon enter what promises to be a long-winded coalition-building process. The Americans too are busy with their presidential elections, and Palestinians are due to face presidential elections in January and could well face parliamentary elections as well.
In this shifting strategic landscape, Jordan and Egypt--staunch US allies that they are--have nevertheless shown enough independence to begin to tango with the Palestinian Islamists. If Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, considers the Lebanese unity government (a Hizballah victory) a good thing and if she backs the release of Palestinian prisoners accused of killing Israelis, she certainly can't stop Jordanian intelligence from reaching agreements on ground rules with the Islamists.
Hamas has clearly made some important politically moderating decisions and ideological and practical calls, yet the group is still far from gaining legitimacy in the region. Such legitimacy will only be delayed by actions such as the recent round up of Fateh leaders in Gaza and the banning of Ramallah-based Palestinian publications.
But changes in the Middle East are palpable at different levels. Regionally it seems clear that little major change is going to take place. Perhaps Syria will move slightly to the pro-US camp but not by much. Within each country, however, the region is still very volatile. The information revolution coupled with the large percentage of young people in the Arab world dictate to all leaders the need for new and more inclusive strategies.
Such new strategies will require groups like Hamas to be much more careful in their actions than in the past, and Hamas will pay close attention to the example of Hizballah. There is currently a very clear offer on the table by Arab countries vis-a-vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. If Hamas moderates its views, its rhetoric and, most importantly, its actions to accommodate said offer, the Islamist group will find a much more welcoming Arab leadership than it might have found in the past.
Leaders of Jordan and Egypt understand that they can't blindly follow the policies of a discredited American government and a failed Israeli leader to break the Islamists. They say all politics is local in America. The local angle is also important here.- Published 1/9/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian columnist, is the director general of Community Media Network, a media NGO that is registered in Jordan and Palestine.
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