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The Post-Annapolis Dynamic – The Hamas Factor

The Post-Annapolis Dynamic – The Hamas Factor

by Anat Kurz

Although it was not represented at Annapolis, Hamas had a significant role in paving the way to the meeting. Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip was clear evidence of the growing strength of the militant Islamist stream in the Palestinian camp, and it was therefore perceived as a threat. However, that development also sharpened the distinction between those Palestinians who accept the idea of a two-state solution and the opposition still committed to total liberation from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and it was therefore also seen as an opportunity. The political process, whose relaunch was signaled at Annapolis, expresses the aspiration to contain the threat and to expand the potential opportunity. The split in the Palestinian Authority was interpreted as a chance to isolate Hamas, renew the dialogue between Fatah and Israel, and advance Israeli-Palestinian understandings, both as ends in themselves and as means to build a counter-force to the array of Islamist state and non-state actors, of which Hamas is part. These goals were shared by the United States and other members of the Quartet as well as by members of the Arab League, who saw in revived Israeli-Palestinian political dialogue a way to promote the “Arab peace initiative.”

Hamas’ part in dictating the Israeli-Palestinian and regional agendas is not confined to the role it played on the road to Annapolis. Hamas can also be expected to thwart discussion of the core issues – perhaps to the relief of opponents of compromise on both sides – and thereby subvert the goal of translating the spirit of Annapolis, as expressed in the speech of President Bush, into substantive progress toward a settlement.

Hamas’ behavior in the prelude to Annapolis and its strident criticism of the speeches delivered there testify to the movement's perceived threat to its status and beliefs stemming from the American determination to promote political momentum and from the regional support for that, reflected in broad Arab participation in the conference. Nor could the movement’s leadership ignore the serious intentions of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to extricate the political process from the stalemate in which it has been mired for years. With the elimination of further unilateral disengagements from the Israeli agenda came renewed hope that a political process could help Israel cope with immediate security threats and long-term security, demographic and political challenges. "If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, […] the State of Israel is finished," said Olmert at the end of the conference. Fatah, for its part, needs a political process just to survive. That is the legal, political and public basis of its claim to national leadership. Abbas told the conference participants that “this opportunity might not be repeated," but his words seemed directed more at his own people, as if to lay the groundwork for the concessions needed to make possible a settlement.

What will Hamas to do to prevent Olmert and Abbas from promoting resolution of the conflict? It, too, will try to turn threat into opportunity and to strengthen its standing at the expense of Fatah. Hamas cannot unleash a civil uprising in the territories; the Palestinian public is too exhausted for that. But it does have a proven means of aborting any political breakthrough: escalation of the struggle against Israel and against Fatah. From Hamas’ viewpoint, those fronts were unified when both Israel and Fatah went to Annapolis.

Escalation of violence will embarrass Fatah. As in the past, terror attacks will expose Fatah’s weakness and further validate the warnings recently voiced by Israeli security agencies that lack of security rules out any direct progress toward a settlement. Clashes between Hamas and Fatah activists, which will probably escalate the more political efforts intensify, will interfere with the implementation of plans, also involving Israel and the United States, to reorganize the security organs subordinate to Abbas and improve their capacity to confront militant opposition elements. Escalating violence will likewise embarrass Saudi Arabia by pointing out the contradiction between Saudi intentions to promote the “Arab peace initiative” and its traditional support for Hamas. Hamas’ violent struggle, which depends on weapons smuggled across Gaza’s southern border, will also encourage continued tension between Egypt and Israel, in contrast to the improved atmosphere that Annapolis was meant to generate.

Given a wave of terrorist attacks, Israel will find it very difficult to carry out its declared intention of acting to ease the burden on residents of the territories and helping Abbas to mobilize support for the political process and the struggle against the Islamist opposition. Tightened closures, continued blockades of export routes and refusal to remove roadblocks in the West Bank will all lend credence to the claims of opponents of the political process, led by Hamas, that Israel is not truly bent on compromise and will justify it sticking to its own uncompromising positions. In any event, escalating terrorism and harsh Israeli responses will lead to suspension of contacts between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Thus, the political process will revert to the logjam from which the US Administration tried to extricate it at the Annapolis meeting and which Arab League members tried to break through ratification of the “peace initiative.”

And what about a new understanding between Fatah and Hamas, perhaps through another National Unity Government of the type that Egypt and Saudi Arabia tried to establish as part of their effort to promote the “initiative”? Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip opened up a blood feud between the two parties. The chances of conciliation between them are now lower than ever. And even if there is some easing of tensions between them, that will not necessarily signal a renewal of the political process; after all, to reach agreement on principles for the last unity government, Abbas had to retreat from the demand that Hamas accept the conditions for dialogue posed by the Quartet. Thus, the political process will be a victim of conflict between Fatah and Hamas and also of accommodation (however remote the prospects) between them.

This means that Hamas will determine the fate of the political process, in the negative sense. To prevent that outcome, Fatah will have to act vigorously against it and Israel will have to act with restraint, even in the face of an upsurge in terrorism. To do that, both Fatah and Israel will need mutual incentives and political strength, the availability of which is very much in doubt.


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