Palestinians learning lessons

What has been happening to Hamas over the past few months, and what to Mahmoud Abbas? And what is the impact of all this on the reconciliation effort?

There has been much speculation over Hamas’ recent maneuverings and their impact on the latest reconciliation effort between Hamas and Fatah. Hamas’ leadership appears to be divided: Khaled Meshaal is making overtures that seem to be out of line with the movement’s perceived ideology. Or are they? What has been happening to Hamas over the past few months and what is the impact of that on the reconciliation effort?

Looking at the movement’s behaviour over the past decade or so, I would argue that Hamas’ desire to be integrated into the Palestinian political system has not subsided but has grown stronger. I would also argue that its actions do not suggest a recent softening in ideology or greater ‘moderation’. Rather, they are signs of an increased political adeptness which are enabling it to better communicate ‘more moderate’ goals that have been consistent for at least the past five years, arguably longer.

For the current reconciliation effort to succeed, it is important that the two parties do not proceed under the assumption that Hamas has only recently shown signs of moderation and is therefore likely to have different national objectives. No. Hamas has the same objectives for a unity government that it had back in 2006 when the last unity government was attempted. The difference now is that Mahmoud Abbas might be more open to these objectives and Hamas might be more competent at communicating them.

Essential lessons

The last significant reconciliation effort between Hamas and Fatah occurred following Yasser Arafat’s death in late 2004. By then, calls for Palestinian Authority (PA) reform were omnipresent and the Palestinian government was a mess, both physically and with respect to its authority and governance. Abbas reached out to the Palestinian factions proposing to shake up the political structure to make it more inclusive. He called on the factions to produce initiatives for a unified leadership and encouraged their participation in the government. He realized that to reform the Palestinian institutions and security forces for an effective fresh start in 2005, he needed the full support of the Palestinian people represented by the various factions.

Presidential elections took place 60 days following Arafat’s death followed by PLC elections in 2006 - the first in a decade. Those led to Hamas’ much publicized victory in a government of national unity which was democratically elected, more representative of the Palestinian people and bent on reform. For Palestinians, it was a promising start to democracy and reform in the territories apart for one fact; the international community led by the US opposed a Hamas-led government. Consequently, the newly-elected government failed as quickly as it formed and much more bloodily.

It did nonetheless leave behind essential lessons which are relevant to the current reconciliation efforts. At the time, there was an inherent incompatibility in the reform visions of the key players. Abbas’ ‘reform’ entailed reducing Fatah’s strong hold on the PA and the PLO institutions. He sought ‘buy in’ from other factions by steering the government towards greater inclusivity. He pursued greater coordination on the security and governance front and fostered more dialogue. Yet for all his reform efforts, Abbas was not ready, willing or able to concede that more inclusion could mean a shift in the Palestinian national strategy that Fatah had unilaterally forged over the years, a strategy based on negotiations.

Instead, he viewed increased inclusion as a means for the PA’s decisions to become more binding on ‘opposition factions’. Hamas’ presence in government, for example, would allow it to object to the PA’s participation in peace talks, but Hamas would most likely be outnumbered and would consequently have to acquiesce. After all, not every party in the government has to endorse every decision. Only the government has to endorse it for the parties to be bound by it.

In contrast, Hamas’ vision for reform was much more comprehensive. It envisioned a complete over-haul of the foundations and pillars of the Palestinian political establishment as it stood at the time. Whereas the PA was born out of Oslo, Hamas believed that the Second Intifada had clearly demonstrated the failure of negotiations, and therefore argued that the political system should not be based on such a default strategy. Rather, Hamas wished to establish a non-corrupt Palestinian government which represented the entirety of the Palestinian people, one which asserted its right to resistance and which was not bound by concessions which gave away basic ‘Palestinian constants’ such as the right of return. Such a government would set its national policy based on the democratic will of the Palestinian people, Hamas insisted, whether through negotiations or resistance.

This fundamental incompatibility meant that when both parties were indeed integrated into a single government, it was bound to fail. Clearly external pressure left no room for success, but internal challenges also existed. The government quickly disintegrated into a West Bank government and a Gaza government.

A narrowing gap

The historic incompatibility persists to this day, albeit to a lesser extent as the gap has narrowed since 2005. Both parties have acquired significant experience in their mutually exclusive governance which may shape the way they approach the current reconciliation effort.

Relative to 2005-2007, Abbas is a lot less susceptible to US and Israeli pressure, as is evident from his open defiance of both at the UN. Theoretically, his loss of faith in the peace process could make him more open to at least discussing alternatives to the Palestinian approach to the conflict, as compared to the past when his vision was limited by the urgent need to end the miserable cycle of violence.

Hamas has also changed over the past few years, but not in its vision of a unity Palestinian government open to resistance, despite the recent media fever over a sudden turn towards ‘moderation’. It has changed in its mode of engagement with the international community and other Palestinian factions.

Media preoccupation with Hamas’ ‘moderation’ focused on ‘the Doha agreement’, where Hamas accepted Abbas’ appointment as Prime Minister of the interim Palestinian government. However, the fact that the government is an interim government is precisely what has escaped media attention. Hamas has not accepted a Palestinian leadership under Abbas. It has rather agreed that Abbas take the necessary pre-requisite steps leading to elections which would choose that leadership at the end of the year.

The interim government composed of a number of committees is tasked with the gargantuan challenge of creating a single governmental infrastructure and framework to house the soon-to-be elected government. It is also of course tasked with the challenge of reforming the election committee and preparing for the actual elections, suitably postponed now from the middle to the end of the year.

More proof that Hamas is moderating its stance is held up in the fact that it joined the PLO. Yet that is not a recent initiative either. Hamas has consistently stated that it wished to be a part of the PLO but had refused the PLO’s recognition of Israel. So what has changed? What has changed is that Hamas has joined the PLO, getting the process of reconciliation rolling again, but has not yet recognized Israel. World audiences may hope that by being part of the PLO Hamas has implicitly recognized Israel, but that is the same as saying that by accepting a Palestinian state with1967 borders, which it has, it has also implicitly recognized Israel. This latest move is therefore no more of a break with the core ideology than the offer of a long term hudna upon Israel’s withdrawal. No Hamas spokesperson will outwardly recognize Israel, which is a clear indication that Hamas has not actually made any ideological concessions by joining the PLO.

Joining in the ‘spring’?

Then comes the renunciation of violence. Seen alongside Meshaal’s declaration of intent in forming a Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, it seems that the movement is splitting. Meshaal appears to be leading the movement through the regional upheaval by carving a place for it amongst the peaceful political Islamic parties coming to power in the region. His actions imply a return to a grass root organization focused on dawa and social work, one which could be active in politics and governance and which could forge ties with the international community. The Egyptian and Tunisian Islamic parties are clearly setting an example.

This vision is certainly more moderate than say Zahhar’s or Haniyeh’s in Gaza who appear to be wedded to Hamas’ commitment to resistance until the occupation has been forced to withdraw to 1967 borders. Yet the division between the two has not been formalized and it is unlikely to be. It is entirely feasible that Hamas’ historic pragmatism and flexibility are leading it down a path where it maintains ambiguity in its short term policies (Meshaal’s statements) while preserving its longer term ideology and dedication to the Palestinian constants (Zahhar’s statements). These are not signs of moderation but rather signs that the movement has become immensely more politicized. It is currently pursuing goals which it has had for a while, except doing so much more skillfully.

What all this means is that, despite media proclamations, Hamas has not moderated its stance significantly. It has voiced consistent objectives and expectations for the Palestinian government since at least its election in 2006 when it called for a democratic, representative Palestinian government which does not blindly engage in negotiations. Its recent strategic moves (joining the PLO, adopting non-violent resistance) therefore do not signal shifts in ideology so much as a newly adopted approach to implementing its objectives. This could mean greater moderation in the coming few months, but there should be no expectation that the movement has changed its 2006 national objectives. Hamas will call for a Palestinian political establishment which is not by default based on negotiations, but which will adopt the most appropriate strategy to serve the Palestinian nation, including resistance if that is needed.

It would save both sides of the reconciliation process a lot of time, not to mention lives, if they recognized this sooner rather than later, and dealt with any discrepancies before the elections. The parties should work on presenting the electorate with a shared vision of what the framework of a future Palestinian government could look like. Abbas should recognize that if elected again, Hamas will almost certainly reassess the role of negotiations based on their perceived benefit to the Palestinian population. This time, Abbas might be more willing to understand that negotiations have indeed failed and be open to discussing alternatives with Hamas, despite the inevitable US and Israeli pressure. It is only his readiness to do so and his understanding of Hamas’ goals which will determine the success of this reconciliation effort. 

About the author

Tareq Baconi has an MPhil in international relations from the University of Cambridge and is currently completing his PhD at King's College