Palestine in Limbo
WASHINGTON - August has witnessed a surreal game of musical chairs played by the two major Palestinian rivals. Hamas was secretly participating in back-door diplomacy with Israel to break Gaza’s isolation and Fatah was sending a delegation to Tehran eager to reconnect with Iran. Alas, both sides were merely attempting to kill time.
Like many other regional issues, Palestine is in waiting mode. Neither Israel nor Hamas is interested in war or peace, while Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas is mostly invested in political survival. Palestinian unity talks have recently failed: Fatah and Hamas were unable to use the moment of international disinterest in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations to patch up their differences.
Hamas has had a couple of rough years. Its relationships with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been strained. Khaled Meshaal, the head of the Islamic group’s political bureau, had to leave Damascus for Doha, as the movement he leads struggled to define its position on two major regional events: the civil war in Syria and the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood’s regime in Egypt. Hamas is not sure whether to stay with Iran or move closer to Saudi Arabia. Whatever it chooses, there will be a price to pay.
Now Hamas is trying to change the dynamic. Seizing an opportunity in the potential environment created by the nuclear deal with Iran, Meshaal began a shuttle diplomacy tour, inspired by Qatar, to mend fences with leaders in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey.
Meshaal’s message was that Gaza cannot survive without Egypt and Hamas never intervened to help the Muslim Brotherhood or to undermine stability in Egypt, while calling for a political solution in Syria that meets the demands of the Syrian people. With Egypt’s cold shoulder and anxious reaction, Saudi Arabia publicly downplayed the importance of Meshaal’s “non-official” visit to Riyadh and reiterated that there is no change of policy on Hamas. The Egyptian government did not take long to act with the mysterious disappearance of 50 Hamas militants near the Rafah border as they were travelling from Gaza via Egypt.
More importantly, Meshaal’s regional efforts give the impression of veering away from Tehran, which might further highlight the subtle division with Hamas’s military wing. Meshaal’s balancing act will be to reconcile a diplomatic tone and policy with the armed struggle spearheaded by al-Qassam Brigades and funded by Tehran.
The other tricky part of Meshaal’s tour is not only attempting to push for elusive autonomy in Gaza but acting as if the PA has ceased to exist or that its existence is completely jeopardised by the Israeli occupation. This is a recipe for further isolation.
Meanwhile, Abbas’s local, regional and international clout has been dwindling. Palestine’s membership in the International Criminal Court (ICC), as a prelude to prosecute Israeli officials, has caused dismay among US and Israeli officials. US efforts to revive the peace track are on ice given the strained relationship between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
With Meshaal’s reluctance to visit Tehran, Abbas has been offering an olive branch to Iran, which is not quite ready to receive him until it figures out what to do with Hamas.
On the domestic front, Abbas seems afraid of his shadow, sensing everyone is after him. Haunted by corruption charges, an almost bankrupt authority and turmoil around his shaky leadership, Abbas and the majority members of the Executive Committee recently resigned, forcing the first election of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) since 2009 and a possible first meeting of the Palestinian Council in 20 years. Although it is not clear whether it is just a manoeuvre or a real attempt to revive the organisation, the ultimate goal seems to change the balance of power inside the PLO and strike another blow to the 2005 Cairo agreement with Hamas, which called for a united and temporary PLO leadership as a first step to reform the organisation.
The formation of a unity government in June 2014 has created further internal divisions on both sides. Abbas’s decision to reshuffle the cabinet, apparently without consulting Hamas, prompted Hamas to declare the government “expired”. Underneath the daily bickering, the base of both rivals has not overcome the bad blood caused by Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in 2007 and Israel’s three wars on the Gaza Strip since 2008. Small confidence-building measures have not been enough and there is no steady regional hand or synergy to push the two sides together.
Both sides need to resolve their leadership struggles and solidify their regional strategies, while recognising that they face an impasse in all directions.
No peace negotiations led by Fatah can have legitimacy or reach their conclusion without the Hamas-controlled Gaza, and the only way for Hamas to break the strip’s isolation must run through the internationally backed Palestinian Authority. Waiting in limbo is not the answer.