May 09, 2011 Edition 12 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
Hamas, the conflict and the unity government
Dialogue fosters moderation  - Ghassan Khatib
This reconciliation agreement with Hamas is a positive development and an indication of moderation.

Hamas has not turned the corner on Israel and violence  - Yossi Alpher
In both the Israeli-Palestinian and internal-Palestinian arenas, no one knows what happens after September.

An opportunity for Hamas moderation  - Mkhaimar Abusada
There are a number of valid questions being asked by the Palestinians and their supporters.

Hamas has real sponsors  - Barry Rubin
Either the partnership will break down or it will make Hamas stronger.

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Dialogue fosters moderation
 Ghassan Khatib
While examining the possible consequences of the reconciliation agreement between Fateh and Hamas, it is important to understand that Hamas is like any other political entity: it includes within its ranks different tendencies. These, in turn, can be developed or stunted, creating moderation or radicalization.

The recent history of Hamas has shown that its engagement with others--either Palestinians or internationals--has helped it in developing towards moderation. The recent reconciliation discussions appear to have contributed to improvements in Hamas' positions; not only does the reconciliation agreement itself provide an example of this moderation, but the days since its signing have consolidated this conclusion. The fact that Hamas agreed to the formation of a government of politically independent personalities that will include neither Fateh nor Hamas members and will adhere to the PLO political platform is an example of that positive tendency. This conclusion was confirmed by the short but clear statement by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal during the reconciliation ceremony in Cairo. There he stated that Hamas' objective is to establish a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. That is the exact objective that the PLO has been working to achieve, and is also an embracing of the international consensus.

In order to make sure that this message was heard clearly internationally, Meshaal followed that statement with three major interviews to international media outfits. The day after the reconciliation, Meshaal made a statement to AFP repeating his previous comments that Hamas' objective is to end the Israeli occupation of the territories occupied in 1967, in order to allow for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in that territory.

A day later, he gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he was pressed to say something about the violent practices of Hamas. In this interview, he said that Hamas will now coordinate its activities to resist the occupation with Fateh and President Abbas. He also used the term "consensus" to describe the decision-making process with Fateh and Abbas.

Finally, and in an interview released by Reuters yesterday, Meshaal said that Hamas will not be willing to discuss or consider recognizing Israel as long as Israel is not willing to allow and recognize an independent Palestinian state in the borders of 1967. This is the clearest indication of the linkage in the minds of the Hamas leadership between their recognition of Israel and Israel's recognition of an independent Palestinian state.

The past holds similar experiences vis-a-vis Hamas and dialogue. Talks among all the Palestinian factions sponsored by the Saudi government led to the Mecca agreement and a shared political platform. Looking at that agreement and the first ever unity government platform shows that Hamas moved far politically, when compared with its election platform just one year before. That government, which was headed by a Hamas member, affirmed its respect for the relevant resolutions of the United Nations, adhered to the Arab Peace Initiative, and accepted to abide by the previous commitments of the Palestinian government, including agreements with Israel.

By comparison, when that national unity government collapsed and all engagement with Hamas ended, the movement began to slide again towards rigidity and extremism. This reconciliation agreement with Hamas is a positive development and an indication of moderation. It should be supported in order to strengthen the moderates within the movement.-Published 9/5/2011

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Hamas has not turned the corner on Israel and violence
 Yossi Alpher
The signing of the Fateh-Hamas reconciliation agreement last week provided us with a host of policy statements by Hamas leaders that could conceivably shed light on the likelihood of the agreement actually reaching fruition. Some may be tempted to see in them an indication of creeping moderation. But overall, the circumstances point to negative prospects.

Shortly after the signing ceremony in Cairo last week, itself marred by Hamas-Fateh bickering, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal told a US daily that Hamas now demands "a Palestinian state in the 1967 lines with Jerusalem as its capital, without any settlements or settlers, not an inch of land swaps and respecting the right of return". He added, "where there is occupation and settlement, there is a right to resistance," but "we are ready to reach an agreement on how to manage resistance". In parallel, a number of statements by Hamas leaders seemingly indicated that the movement understood it was now obliged to maintain a ceasefire with Israel.

Nowhere did Hamas spokesmen indicate anything approaching specific acceptance of the Quartet conditions for engaging Hamas: rejecting violence, accepting past Israel-PLO accords, and recognizing Israel's right to exist.

Members of the Hamas leadership also publicly mourned and eulogized assassinated al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, in sharp contrast to statements made by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and others in the West Bank.

What we learn from these statements is, first, that Hamas remains committed to violence against Israelis and to militant Islamist terrorism in general, but understands it has to suspend violence for the time being. That, of course, is at least short-term good news for anyone living within rocket and mortar range of the Gaza Strip. But the longer-term implications must concern Fateh, Israel and the international community.

Second, Hamas embraces Fateh's territorial negotiating positions in the most superficial manner. Yes to a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines with its capital in East Jerusalem. No to the land swaps that could conceivably make it possible and no to settlers remaining behind under Palestinian jurisdiction. No mention of a two-state solution or of security arrangements. And beyond territorial issues, ongoing insistence on the right of return, which is understood by Israelis, not without reason (see Hamas' charter and the Muslim Brotherhood's basic ideology regarding Jews and Israel), to mean rejection of Israel's right to exist.

In short, the hope that Hamas has "turned a corner" regarding Israel and violence appears to have little foundation. The notion that the reconciliation experience will gradually modify Hamas' positions, based on the movement's superficial concessions thus far, is pure speculation. On the other hand, whether or not such a process takes place, Israel has little influence over the matter as long as violence is avoided.

If we factor Hamas' positions into the reality of the Fateh-Hamas reconciliation agreement and prospects for a Palestinian state to emerge as a consequence of some sort of United Nations recognition, we encounter the following scenario. Israel will (and should) be obliged to work with the next Palestinian Authority government with regard to security and finances because, as an apolitical, technocrat institution, the PA government will not represent Hamas policy. In the best case scenario, it will take weeks and possibly months to put that government together. Meanwhile, both Fateh and Hamas share an interest in presenting the perception of a united and peaceful Palestine at the UN in September.

Implementation of the remainder of the agreement--elections, a unified security mechanism, merging Hamas into the PLO--is almost certainly postponed until after the UN and in any case is even more doubtful. After September, and bearing in mind that PA President Mahmoud Abbas does not intend to run for reelection, the situation is as murky as is the fate of virtually all other aspects of the Arab revolutionary wave that catalyzed this agreement.

All this takes place against the backdrop of a non-existent Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Abbas' accurate perception that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is not a genuine candidate for such a process undoubtedly contributed to his readiness to countenance the problematic agreement with Hamas at this particular juncture in Palestinian and Arab history.

For his part, Netanyahu presumably knows that Israel faces genuine risks in the prospect of Hamas, despite the odds, becoming the dominant Palestinian movement not only in Gaza but in the West Bank as well. A substantive peace process might have obviated this agreement and kept the two separate, where it is easier for Israel to manage its affairs with them. But regardless of what he intends to propose in the US Congress on May 24, Netanyahu's credibility in Ramallah is so low as to be unsalvageable. He apparently sees peace moves as an Israeli-American affair, not Israeli-Palestinian.

Paradoxically, Netanyahu's credibility may be higher with Hamas, if we speculate that the recent success of Israel's new Iron Dome defense system in neutralizing rockets launched from Gaza against Israeli cities helped convince Hamas to opt, at least for a while, for the diplomatic track.

As matters stand, then, the next real arena of decision-making about Palestine remains the UN in September. The Palestinians hope to arrive in New York with a stronger and more united image. Israel continues to be outflanked, isolated, and woefully unequipped to deal with whatever emerges there without doing further damage to its international standing. In both the Israeli-Palestinian and the internal-Palestinian arenas, no one knows what happens after that.-Published 9/5/2011 ©

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

An opportunity for Hamas moderation
 Mkhaimar Abusada
The signing of the reconciliation agreement between Fateh and Hamas can be considered a golden opportunity for the Palestinian people and their cause. Four years have passed since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in June 2007 after violent clashes with its rival Fateh. Four years of political split and two governments, one led by Fateh in the West Bank and the other one led by Hamas in Gaza. Four years of incitement, hatred, imprisonment and torture of political opponents.

There are a number of valid questions being asked by the Palestinians and their supporters. Will the agreement put an end to the internal rift between Hamas and Fateh? Will the agreement bring moderation within Hamas? Or it will cost the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Palestinian Authority and Fateh international recognition and legitimacy?

It is no secret that both Hamas and Fateh were pushed by internal and regional factors to sign the reconciliation agreement. Less than a month and a half ago, Hamas expressed no interest in reconciliation. When President Mahmoud Abbas expressed his willingness to visit the Gaza Strip on March 16, Hamas' military wing al-Qassam Brigades provoked Israel and escalated the security situation to sabotage the visit and reconciliation efforts. The question is: what happened to cause Hamas to accept the Egyptian initiatives?

A number of regional and internal factors have pushed Hamas to sign the reconciliation agreement. First, there were the political changes in the region, especially in Egypt, the collapse of the Mubarak regime and the coming of a new government that is considered friendly to Hamas. Second, the political upheavals in Syria and the bloody crushing of the Syrian freedom movement caused Hamas to reconsider its special relationship with Damascus. Finally, Hamas' resistance program reached a deadlock after Israel's Cast Lead operation in 2008-09.

In the meantime, Abbas and Fateh were not in better circumstances. The collapse of the Mubarak regime, an ally to Mahmoud Abbas and Fateh, upset the regional balance. Second, there was the stalemate in the peace process with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and the use of the veto by the United States in February to kill a resolution aimed at condemning Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Finally, Abbas is better off approaching the United Nations General Assembly in September 2011 with all Palestinians united behind him.

There is no doubt that the current government in Egypt, motivated by its interest in reviving Egypt's regional role, imposed its will on both Hamas and Fateh. The new government in Egypt is looking for quick successes to create a positive image while still challenged by internal troubles, poverty, unemployment and corruption. A number of incentives were offered to Hamas to accept the agreement, mainly the reopening of the Rafah border crossing.

Hamas' acceptance of the reconciliation agreement is a setback for its political program. The agreement calls for the formation of a new Palestinian government made up of independents and technocrats--previously rejected by Hamas in 2006-2007. The new government will subscribe to the PLO political program, and will extend hands to the Quartet and the international community. And above all, this government will get a vote of confidence from the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Legislative Council.

Hamas also accepted with great hesitation the convening of Palestinian presidential, parliamentary and PLO elections within a year. Hamas is aware of the decline of its popularity, but hopes that it can improve its image within the coming year. It is early to predict the results of Palestinian elections, but the past four years have taught the Palestinians good lessons.

There is no doubt that Hamas has shown flexibility and moderation by signing the reconciliation agreement. The region is changing rapidly, and Hamas wants to catch the train of changes, which could bring regional and international recognition for Hamas.

In spite of Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Hanieh's remarks on the death of Osama Bin Laden (now qualified by Hamas), Hamas largely subscribes to moderate political Islam and is fighting a fierce war against radical Salafi groups. Historically, Hamas has distanced itself from al-Qaeda and Bin Laden and has launched a brutal war against Salafi groups in Gaza on numerous occasions.

It is up to the Quartet and the international community to depart from their old policy of isolating and boycotting Hamas. Disengaging and isolating Hamas has not weakened it, but rather led to making it stronger. The chance exists, and Hamas is willing to moderate further if it is given the opportunity.-Published 9/5/2011 ©

Mkhaimar Abusada is a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.

Hamas has real sponsors
 Barry Rubin
The Fateh-Hamas decision to reconcile, form a joint government and hold elections seems to be a short-run maneuver that might have some very long-range consequences.

Fateh's motive seems to be to have a united front when it goes to the United Nations in September to seek recognition of a unilateral declaration of independence. One of the arguments used to criticize its standing to make such a move is the fact that the Palestinian Authority does not rule almost half the territory it is claiming.

For Fateh, it is also a popular move. A recent poll by Near East Consulting says that 89 percent of Palestinians want the dispute settled and believe it will help the Palestinian case at the UN.

But while September is the minimum time for this agreement to last, May 2012 is the maximum timeline. That is the approximate date set for new elections and the side that expects to lose would probably pull out of the pact. Hamas has no intention of yielding control over the Gaza Strip to a Fateh-dominated PA, while Fateh feels the same way about letting Hamas extend its control over the West Bank.

Which of the two groups is more popular? Ironically, it may be true that more Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, fed up with Hamas' repressive rule and destructive policies, would vote for Fateh candidates than last time; while West Bank Palestinians, fed up with Fateh's continuing corruption, might give more votes to Hamas.

On its side, Fateh's election slogan could be that the PA has delivered relative prosperity; Hamas offers ideological and religious fervor.

There are, however, three big problems that the merger--if it is at all applied in practice--creates for Palestinian politics and for the peace process.

First, radicalization. Hamas has more advantages for radicalizing Palestinian public opinion, the PA, and Fateh than Fateh has for moderating Hamas. Hamas is a disciplined organization with a clear ideology. It has a strong social welfare component--albeit only to build its political base--and has not been caught in high-level corruption. Moreover, it can play the card of Islam and of militancy against Israel and the West.

True, Fateh has on its side West Bank prosperity and providing the people with greater stability. But it has not delivered a state. In the past, Hamas' talking points have done better than those of Fateh.

Yet the issue is not just what the people think but what the militants think. Fateh people have defected to Hamas and Islamist ideas have developed within the Fateh militias. Groups that exist to fight admire the most energetic, effective fighters. The younger generation of Fateh people has worked alongside Hamas and doesn't bear the hatred of its elders toward a rival group.

Finally, Hamas' sponsors have done better than Fateh's sponsors. In fact, Fateh has no real sponsors in the Middle East. In contrast, Hamas is backed by Iran, Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood, and now the Egyptian government. These forces seem to Middle Easterners on both sides to be getting stronger at the expense of the United States and the West.

The second factor is the western perception of the Palestinian Authority. The PA's image is not enhanced by bringing into the government as an equal partner an organization rejecting peace with Israel and advocating genocide while extolling and committing terrorism. On top of this, Hamas is a client of Iran, Syria, and the Muslim Brotherhood--not great strategic friends of the West.

Will western governments be willing to give money to a regime that includes Hamas? One whose classrooms will teach that Israel should be destroyed and the Jews are subhuman? One very possibly containing a movement that continues to fire rockets and mortar shells into Israel?

Possibly, but it won't be easy.

Finally, there is a factor that exacerbates the first two points: How will this alliance affect PLO policies?

A PLO that has absorbed Hamas will not be able to negotiate seriously with Israel. Indeed, set on the unilateral independence strategy, it will not want to talk seriously with Israel. On no issues--borders, security guarantees, Jerusalem, refugees--will it be able to make the tiniest compromise. It will certainly not reduce incitement to violence or terrorist attacks.

There is also the question of structural changes within the PA. Many within Fateh already want to get rid of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the man mainly responsible for the West Bank's economic progress. Joined by Hamas partners, they would almost certainly succeed in forcing Fayyad out. If there are Hamas ministers, they will use their positions to bring their cadres into the government and turn the PA in a more radical and Islamist direction.

It should be stressed that for the PLO to be a real partner for peace, one of the most important tasks would be to reinstall its (or, perhaps one might better say, Fateh's) hegemony over Hamas. This is not at all what is happening now. Either the partnership will break down or it will make Hamas stronger, the PA more radical and, hence, unsuccessful in producing peace, prosperity, or progress toward an actual Palestinian state.-Published 9/5/2011 ©

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, "Israel: An Introduction" has just been published by Yale University Press.