Yesterday’s Middle East Institute discussion of Hamas’s shifting political calculations, moderated by Phil Wilcox of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, was one of the more depressing events I’ve attended lately. And I attend a lot of them.
Bottom line: the shifts, though potentially real, will make no difference to the peace process with Israel. Or even to reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.
Rob Malley of the International Crisis Group suggested the Arab awakening has certainly sharpened questions for Hamas about its relationship with Syria and Iran and about whether it should moderate its views, as other Muslim Brotherhood organizations have done. Hamas refused to support Bashar al Assad, but somehow that is now a byegone. Iran has renewed its financing, though at what level is unclear.
Gaith al Omari of the American Task Force on Palestine said Hamas needs Iranian financing less than in the past because it has Gaza’s revenue, which makes the Gaza leadership more independent. There is really no progress on reconciliation with Fatah, which would require more than naming a new unity government. It would require agreement on holding elections and unifying the security forces. So far, all we’ve seen is reconciliation theater, nothing more.
Mark Perry of the Jersalem Media and Communications Center anticipates generational change will be important inside Hamas. The outside (of Gaza) leadership may be ready for acceptance of the 1967 borders for a Palestinian state and for reconciliation, but the inside Gaza leadership is not. The division is not really ideological, Malley said, but based on where you happen to sit. There is a real debate happening, but the outcome is unclear.
The U.S. is a problem. The “quartet” (U.S., EU, UN and Russia) conditions (recognition of Israel’s right to exist, renunciation of violence and acceptance of past agreements) are unconditional. But Hamas sees no likelihood that Washington can really bring Israel to the negotiating table with anything interesting to offer on settlements, Jerusalem or other important issues. Hamas’ great fear is that it will get trapped like Fatah, having compromised without getting anything substantial in return. They want to know if they accept the conditions what would happen next. The U.S. has no serious response.
There is nevertheless no alternative to a U.S.-led mediation process. The Europeans and the UN have nothing substantial to offer.
This left me wondering whether George W. Bush was right when he shunned the Middle East peace process. The prospects for anything interesting happening sounded minimal to me. Then again, when the experts all agree the glass is empty, that’s when something interesting happens.