PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal reached an agreement in Cairo on 22 December on national reconciliation and a strategic partnership. A new temporary leadership was formed for the PLO, for the first time in tandem with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Hamas’ joining of the PLO does not herald a strategic shift in the movement’s policy or recognition of the agreements the PLO has signed with Israel. The Hamas leadership keeps emphasizing that it seeks to take over the PLO after new elections to the Palestinian National Council and to alter the PLO platform in accordance with its own views.
Osama Hamdan, in charge of foreign relations for Hamas, asserted in an interview: “Whoever thinks Hamas has changed its positions and that it accepts the PLO’s political platform of surrender is dreaming or fooling himself.” Hamdan went on to state that “Hamas is seeking a national framework to reconstruct the PLO [and] reconsider its political platform…from the standpoint of our basic principles and rights, which do not accept bargaining, particularly [over] the liberation of our land from the river to the sea and the right of return.”
Hamas has reached an agreement with Abbas on adopting the “popular resistance” paradigm for the struggle against Israel. Various political elements view this position of Hamas as a sign of pragmatism, heralding a process of accepting Israel’s existence including willingness to negotiate with it on a political settlement. Yet the openly stated positions of the Hamas leadership do not support this assessment.
An official Hamas announcement on 27 December stated: “We underline our adherence to our right to the struggle in all its forms, particularly the armed struggle, for the removal of the occupation. The way of resistance [muqawama in the original, with a double entendre of resistance and struggle], jihad, and martyrdom for Allah [istishhad] has proved that it is the only way to forcefully attain our rights and the liberation of our land, Al-Quds [Jerusalem], and our holy places.
Hamas’ growing confidence stems first and foremost from the consequences of the Arab Spring, or more precisely the Islamic Spring, which has empowered the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other countries. For years under Mubarak’s regime, Egypt gave backing to the PA. Now, in the wake of the revolution, Egypt stands to become a huge source of strength for Hamas, especially once the Muslim Brotherhood forms the next government there.
The groundwork for an historic change in the Palestinian arena was laid in Cairo at the end of December 2011. Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestinian Authority and leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Fatah movement, paved the way for a new partnership with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in running the affairs of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza and in representing all the Palestinian geographic communities.
The agreement on reconciliation and a strategic partnership was reached in a meeting between Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Cairo on 22 December, and its implementation was envisaged on three levels: a comprehensive national reconciliation, a reform of the PLO, and accords on a strategic approach to the challenges facing the Palestinians.1
A New Temporary Leadership for the PLO
In Cairo a new temporary leadership was formed for the PLO in tandem with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. This temporary leadership, headed by Abbas, held its initial meeting on 22 December and, along with the PLO Executive Committee,2 includes, for the first time, Mashaal, Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Shalah, and four independent representatives: Munib al-Masri, Mustafa Barghouti, Yasser al-Wadia, and a fourth, soon to be designated, person who will represent the Palestinian diaspora. Also participating in the meeting were Nayef Hawatmeh, leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Abd al-Rahim Mallouh, deputy secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Salim Zaanoun, chairman of the Palestinian National Council (PNC).3
During the meeting Abbas agreed to a reform of the PLO including elections for its institutions beginning with the PNC, which serves as the PLO’s legislative body and is empowered to elect the members of the Executive Committee.
Mashaal ascribes historic importance to this first meeting of the PLO’s new temporary leadership, calling it the organization’s third birthday; the first “birthday” was its establishment in 1965; the second, the induction of all the Palestinian organizations under its roof in 1969.4 Mashaal stressed that from this point “no one [in the PLO] can any longer make decisions separately and no separate decisions will be made on the running of the [Palestinian] Authority and the PLO institutions.”5
Azzam Ahmad, in charge of national relations for the Fatah Central Committee, regards the agreements reached at the meeting of the temporary leadership on the basis of the 2005 Cairo Agreement between Fatah and Hamas, and the inclusion of all the Palestinian organizations under the PLO umbrella, as an important step in bolstering the PLO’s legitimacy in representing the Palestinian people.6 A similar view was voiced by PNC Chairman Salim Zaanoun, who also sees the reform of the PLO as strengthening its status as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”7
After the meeting of the PNC’s Political Committee in Amman on 26 December, Zaanoun said it had discussed arrangements for the elections to the PNC in the PA and the diaspora, and that proposals on this matter were conveyed to the different organizations with an eye to the discussion on their concerns slated for Amman in mid-January. Zaanoun emphasized that the Palestinian population in Jordan will not participate in the PNC elections.8 The explanation for this was hinted at by Abbas, who said: “In Jordan elections will not be held for reasons we are all familiar with and because we do not want to find ourselves in blind alleys.”9
According to the agreements reached in Cairo, the new temporary leadership is supposed to reconvene at the beginning of February to discuss the process of officially incorporating additional organizations into the PLO, along with measures to facilitate the PNC elections envisaged for May.
Senior Hamas figures emphasize in this connection that the creation of the new temporary PLO leadership does not entail Hamas’ formal entry into the PLO, and that a further decision on that matter will be made after the PNC election results are known.10 Khalil Abu Leila, one of the top Hamas officials, told the Quds Fars news agency on 24 December that Hamas would not officially join the PLO at this stage; in his view the main aim of the organization’s temporary leadership is to change the PLO’s political platform and keep it on the right path, namely, the liberation of Palestine. According to Abu Leila, the new temporary leadership has the right to reconsider the agreements that the PLO previously signed – including, by implication, the Interim Agreement with Israel.11
National Reconciliation and New General Elections
The PLO temporary leadership has reached breakthrough understandings toward national reconciliation in the Palestinian camp that could, if they bear fruit, bring about the end of the two-headed leadership that emerged in the West Bank (under Fatah control) and Gaza (under Hamas control) in the wake of Hamas’ bloody coup in Gaza in June-July 2007. At the heart of the agreed framework for rebuilding Palestinian governmental legitimacy is the creation of a Palestinian unity government and the holding of new elections for the PNC and the presidency, six years after the previous, January 2006 elections. The general elections are also supposed to be held in May, close in time to the PNC elections.
In an interview with Hamas’ official website on 22 December, Mashaal said the condition for holding the elections was the establishment of a national unity government that would prepare the political atmosphere for them in the West Bank and Gaza. He said the political conditions for setting up a unity government would emerge at the end of January, and in February the practical measures would be taken.12
Abbas’ seriousness about holding elections is indicated by his presidential decree of 22 December, which speaks of setting up a central elections committee for the parliament and the presidency, which would conduct and supervise the election process in accordance with the law.13 A few days after the meeting with Mashaal and Shalah in Cairo, Abbas met in Ramallah on 26 December with members of parliament from the Change and Reform Party (Hamas) headed by parliamentary chairman Dr. Aziz Duwaik (Hamas). The aim was to update them on the developments regarding the national reconciliation.
In a report on the meeting, the official Palestinian WAFA news agency said Abbas thinks the elections for the Palestinian institutions as envisaged by the reconciliation agreement “will open the door to a real partnership of all the [Palestinian] forces aimed at implementing the national program and setting up a Palestinian state whose capital is Jerusalem on the ’67 borders.”14
As for Hamas, it expects to achieve in the coming elections an even more decisive victory than in January 2006. In an interview with Al-Sharq Al-Awsat on 26 December, Hamas Political Bureau member Mahmoud al-Zahar predicted that Hamas would win the next elections to the Palestinian parliament by an overwhelming majority, and also noted that Hamas has not yet made a decision on fielding a candidate for the presidency.15
The national reconciliation agreement also stipulates forming committees for “general freedoms” in the West Bank and Gaza. These committees have already begun discussing the issue of freeing the “political activists” who were arrested by the PA of Ramallah and the Hamas government in Gaza in the prereconciliation period, as well as the return of Fatah activists who fled Gaza in fear of the Hamas regime, the reopening of institutions that were closed by the two sides, and Palestinian residents’ right of free movement.16 In addition, social reconciliation committees have been established to discuss governmental compensation and treatment for families of those killed in Fatah-Hamas clashes in recent years, and for those wounded in the clashes.17
Hamas’ Motives for the National Reconciliation
In an interview with Hamas’ official website on 22 December, Mashaal explained the factors that led the movement to take major steps toward reconciliation with Fatah and Abbas’ PA:
The rift was a burden on all of us as Palestinians, a temporary anomalous situation that was forced on us….The political horizon is blocked….The region [the Middle East] is occupied with the beautiful Arab Spring, even if it means a temporary distraction from the Palestinian problem…and this has conveyed a message to us…that we Palestinians must deal with our domestic affairs….The wonderful Egyptian revolution has altered the mood in Egypt and fostered a new approach to this issue.
Mashaal, therefore, portrays the reconciliation as reflecting political pragmatism aimed at making the most of the opportunities that the Arab Spring has opened for the Palestinians – primarily a change in the regional balance of power to Israel’s detriment for the foreseeable future, thanks to the rise of Islamist forces in Egypt and other countries. Mashaal believes the Arab Spring has, intentionally or by force of circumstances, provided the Islamist elements with a successful and internationally accepted model for taking power.
The current developments in the region are too weighty for the United States to ignore or oppose. What has occurred is not just a passing democratic experiment in an Arab or Islamic state…but rather a democratic tsunami willed by the peoples and expressing their aspirations. And the United States in particular and the West in general can neither ignore nor contain this, and will have no choice but to adopt a policy in line with what reality will dictate.18
Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh also sees the Arab Spring as the source of Hamas’ power in the new geopolitical circumstances of the Middle East. “The revolutions [in the Arab world] show that the future is given to us, the Palestinians, and to our Arab and Islamic peoples,” he remarked, and further observed that Tahrir Square and the change wrought by young people and revolutionary forces has returned the Palestinian problem to the forefront. In Haniyeh’s view, Israel will not be able to evade the Palestinian people’s demand to establish their state with Al-Quds as its capital.19
At his meeting in Cairo with Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Badi, Haniyeh said that “the Arab Spring will be a bloody winter for the occupation….The Zionist project is near its end,” adding that Hamas is Egypt’s first line of defense in confronting the “cancerous entity.” He also addressed Israel: “We say [to Israel] that the time is changing, the time of the peoples [is approaching] as they take the reins of initiative and decision and go out to the squares of liberation to create a reality and set orders of priority, emphasizing to the enemy that he is not a neighbor, and the times have changed and there is no future for the occupation of Palestinian land.”20
Yahya al-Abadsa, a Hamas member of parliament, spoke similarly in an interview with Quds Fars about a change in the regional balance of power favoring the Palestinian side in the wake of the Arab Spring. As al-Abadsa put it: “The Palestinian resistance and the regional conditions, the states, and the revolutions of the Arabs will prevent the Zionist entity from carrying out its plans to attack Gaza again as in the aggression of 2008.”21
Hamas’ Position on Recognition of Israel
Hamas’ joining of the PLO does not herald a strategic shift in the movement’s policy or recognition of the agreements the PLO has signed with Israel, which imply recognition of Israel. The Hamas leadership keeps emphasizing that the movement’s goal is completely different; that it seeks to take over the PLO and alter its platform in accordance with its own views by attaining a majority in the PLO’s institutions and in the PNC elections.22
Haniyeh made unequivocally clear that “we will not recognize the Zionist entity, we will not go along with agreements that ignored our rights.”23 Hamas senior official Salah al-Bardawil likewise denied any possibility of the movement revising its policy on the question of recognizing Israel. As he said in an interview to Quds Fars: “Whoever thinks our entry into the framework of the PLO leadership will lead to surrendering our basic principles is dreaming, and so is anyone who thinks for a moment that the PLO is a trap for getting Hamas to recognize Israel.”
Bardawil stressed that
the question of recognition of Israel is not on the agenda in the talks on reconstructing the PLO, and has not been a topic of discussion whatsoever from the start, since recognition of Israel is not only a red line but, from our standpoint, a religious-legal prohibition even before it enters the category of political prohibition, and therefore anyone who thinks Hamas can be dragged into a trap of that kind is dreaming.
Regarding Fatah, Bardawil expressed a hope that it would be able to shake off the burden of Oslo and arrangements with Israel:
We recognize the complexity and the obligations in which Fatah entangled itself in past years; we understand that it is not impossible for the Fatah organization to salvage itself from the great error that is the Oslo [agreements]; we are interested in helping it escape this legacy…and we want both of us to work for the liberation of the land in keeping with the principle of full national partnership.24
Osama Hamdan, in charge of foreign relations for Hamas, says its joining the temporary PLO leadership is not a tactical move but a strategic step aimed at changing the nature of the PLO and its political platform to suit the objectives of liberation and return. In an interview with Quds Fars, Hamdan asserted that “whoever thinks Hamas has changed its positions and that it accepts the PLO’s political platform of surrender is dreaming or fooling himself.”
Hamdan went on to state that
Hamas is seeking a national framework to reconstruct the PLO, reconsider its political platform, and carry out a comprehensive political examination from the standpoint of our basic principles and rights, which do not accept bargaining [over basic principles], particularly the liberation of our land from the river to the sea and the right of return.
He underlined that “Hamas seeks to achieve unity on the basis of a national program aimed at fulfilling the liberation and the return.”25
Hamas’ Position on Fighting Israel
Hamas has reached an agreement with Abbas on adopting the “popular resistance” paradigm for the struggle against Israel. Various political elements view this position of Hamas as a sign of pragmatism, heralding a process of accepting Israel’s existence including willingness to negotiate with it on a political settlement.
Yet the openly stated positions of the Hamas leadership do not support this assessment. On the contrary, they portray Hamas’ willingness to reach understandings with Abbas on popular resistance as a solely tactical move that is aimed, along with other points of agreement, at enabling the national reconciliation – which, in turn, facilitates Hamas’ entry and takeover of the PLO institutions without giving up its ideology and commitment to jihad.
Mashaal explained that while Hamas does not concur with the PA’s approach to that issue, it is prepared to reach a compromise based on an agreed common denominator and defer dealing with the points of contention to a later date. Hamas, Mashaal says, will strive to effectuate popular resistance while keeping all options open, adjusting the struggle against Israel to the circumstances.26
In a 26 December interview with Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, al-Zahar remarked: “Whoever thinks that through the reconciliation agreement one can stop settlement activity or end the occupation is mistaken. That would require a change in the [Palestinian] position on the West Bank and freeing the hand of resistance to fight the occupation with all means.”27
An official Hamas announcement on 27 December, five days after the meeting of the temporary PLO leadership in Cairo, stated:
We underline our adherence to our right to the struggle in all its forms, particularly the armed struggle, for the removal of the occupation. The way of resistance [muqawama in the original, with a double entendre of resistance and struggle], jihad, and martyrdom for Allah [istishhad] has proved that it is the only way to forcefully attain our rights and the liberation of our land, Al-Quds [Jerusalem], and our holy places.
The announcement further emphasized that Hamas seeks “to make the PLO return to acting on the basis of principles that protect the fundamental values, rights, and the holy places and will lead to realizing our Palestinian people’s aspirations to liberation and return.”28
Islamic Jihad’s position on reconciliation and the right to armed struggle is similar to that of Hamas. Shalah, who, as noted, took part in the Cairo meeting on the new temporary PLO leadership, said in an interview with Al-Hayat on 24 December that it was “not a declaration of the Jihad’s joining the PLO….The issue will be discussed in the next round of talks on our joining the PLO and this meeting is only a beginning.”
Shalah stressed that “joining the PLO does not mean that any organization renounces its platform, and we have agreed to set aside the question of the political platform so that it will not pose an obstacle to joining the PLO.” He added: “President Mahmoud Abbas made clear that the emphasis on resistance does not negate the Palestinian people’s right to armed struggle….He said this in the context of the situation assessment….No one has the right to say that the armed struggle is illegitimate or that the Palestinians do not have the right to employ it.”29
The Palestinian Authority Adopts a Strategy of Confrontation
The PA no longer believes in the possibility of a political process under the current circumstances. That is why it sets preconditions for dialogue with Israel, particularly a halt to settlement and negotiating on the basis of the 1967 lines. The talks in Jordan on 3 January, to which Israeli and Palestinian representatives were invited by the Hashemite Royal House, were likewise seen by the Palestinian leadership as lacking any real chance to get the political process back on track.
The PA chairman agreed to Palestinian participation in the talks in Jordan but made clear that if there was no change in the Israeli government’s position by 26 January (when the Quartet’s deadline for reviving the talks expires) and it kept rejecting the Palestinian preconditions for negotiations, then from the Palestinians’ standpoint all options would be open.30
After the talks between Israeli representative Yitzhak Molcho and Palestinian representative Saeb Erekat in Jordan on 3 January, Abbas said: “The Palestinian demand is well-known, meaning that the Israelis should accept the defined jurisdiction of the peace process and cease the settlement activity, and if that happens we will be ready to return to negotiations.” He warned that “if Israel does not accept the Palestinian demands, the period of time [designated for negotiations] will come to its end on 26 January and we will have at our disposal other means of action. It is unnecessary to disclose them yet, as they are not fully deliberated, but they may be harsh.”31
On 25 December, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported, based on senior Palestinian sources, that Abbas had announced to the secretaries-general of the Palestinian organizations a delay in establishing the national unity government until the Quartet’s political process for negotiations with Israel had run out. The report says Abbas explained that, despite being totally convinced that there is no future for negotiations with the present Israeli government, he did not want to give Israel a pretext to attack him for setting up a national unity government with Hamas.32
On 1 January, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki called on the Quartet to declare already the failure of its initiative and place the full responsibility on Israel for the dead-end in the political process, which in his view requires a new situation assessment by the Palestinians. “There is no avoiding a situation assessment after twenty years….We are not interested in negotiations for the sake of negotiations. We must define the goal of ending the occupation and setting up the Palestinian state.”33
The summation of the meeting of the Abbas-headed PLO Executive Committee, held at the presidential headquarters in Ramallah on 31 December, offered a message in a similar spirit. The PLO leadership turned “to the members of the Quartet with a request that they grant priority [to addressing] the settlement danger…before the discussion of a mechanism for a solution and for negotiations, which will yield barren results in light of Israel’s ongoing settlement policy.”
The Executive Committee also announced its intention to request that the UN Security Council “discuss the dangerous direction [of Israeli policy] that will destroy all chances of a peace process for a two-state solution,” and also to turn to the Arab League since “this matter [settlement] threatens the national fate and Arab national security in light of the fact that all settlement is illegal and no solution would be acceptable that permits their [the settlements’] existence on the national soil.”
Based on this pessimistic assessment, the Executive Committee requested the preparation of a political document that will analyze and present the political options facing the Palestinian leadership after the Quartet’s 26 January deadline passes.34
The confrontational approach was adopted by Abbas and approved in the meeting of the temporary PLO leadership – including by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which did not give up the “right to the armed struggle.” In a closed meeting of the PLO Executive Committee in the last week of December, Abbas addressed (as quoted by WAFA) the significance of popular resistance:
We have agreed on all we have agreed on, namely peaceful popular resistance, and we want to further discuss [with the Palestinian organizations] the advantages of peaceful popular resistance. There is a great need to make our voice heard every day, or at least every week. I have said these things more than once to our brothers, and I said that the leaders, too, need to participate in this resistance.
If the leaders themselves take part in the demonstrations, Israelis, Europeans, and Americans will come to them and join demonstrations against the fence and against the settlements and the cruel actions. This must be made clear and must be emphasized. We must do all that we can to make our voice heard. This is a legitimate right and no one can say it is not a right. We choose [to realize this right] in these difficult conditions through peaceful popular resistance, so that the world will always know that we are acting on the basis of our right, and a right that is based on needs will not die.35
It emerges from his statements that what Abbas means by “peaceful popular resistance” is clashes between Palestinian crowds organized by the Palestinian leadership and IDF soldiers and Israeli settlers in the West Bank and along the Gaza-Israel border. The PA uses the term “peaceful” to describe actions in recent years against the security fence and the settlements which have involved rock-throwing (including of the mechanized kind) against Israeli security forces and civilian vehicles; firebomb throwing; violent attacks with axes, knives, and the like; violent attacks by mobs; and sabotage of facilities and equipment. These “peaceful” actions are often serious breaches of order that endanger lives.
In an interview to mark the founding of Fatah, Abbas repeated the threat that if there is no political progress by the end of January “the options will be open,” adding that “there are people who speak of the Third Intifada, and I say that is not acceptable and I do not agree to it.”36 In the past Abbas has criticized the terror employed by the PA in the Second Intifada, and he does not appear interested, at least at this stage, in precisely replicating that campaign.
Between “popular resistance” and armed intifada there is a large scope for violent activity. At a Fatah ceremony in Bethlehem on 31 December, Mahmoud al-Aloul, a member of its central committee who is in charge of recruitment and organization, explained the adoption and significance of the confrontation strategy:
We are tired of the present situation of foot-dragging. Time after time we have waited for the promises of a new American president, which he does not fulfill, telling us to wait until the next elections….That was why President Abu Mazen [Abbas] brought the Palestinian issue to the UN….We have adopted a strategy centering on popular resistance to the Israeli measures, and we will make next year the year of dynamic popular resistance.37
In an interview with Mawtini radio, al-Aloul said that “the coming year will be a year of confrontation and focusing on the popular resistance, supporting it, participating in it, and expanding it.” He added: “The political confrontation with the Israeli occupation will intensify and also with the United States that supports and protects the Israeli policy, isolated as that policy is from an international standpoint.”38
The PLO Executive Committee also took a decision that speaks of “the need to broaden the framework of the peaceful popular resistance against the settlements and the crimes of the settlers who damage mosques and churches and the property and daily lives of the residents.”39
Hani al-Masri, a prominent political commentator who expresses the positions of the PA, wrote in Al-Ayyam on 27 December:
We hope that 2012 will be the year of the Palestinian Spring, the year of adopting a new alternative strategy to the strategy of separate tracks of negotiation and resistance, so that instead negotiations and resistance will complement each other, a strategy of struggle that will combine all the forms of action and struggle on the basis that resistance sows and negotiation reaps, and he who sows also reaps.40
The PLO’s political leadership is likewise preparing for the popular resistance and a diplomatic offensive against Israel. Nabil Shaath, member of Fatah’s Central Committee and in charge of its foreign relations, said the coming weeks and the coming year would see an “unprecedented diplomatic offensive” against Israel and that 2012 would be “the year of pressure on Israel that will place it under a real international siege.” In an interview with the PA’s official Kol Falestin (Voice of Palestine) radio on 25 December, Shaath added that the Palestinian leadership was planning to launch an intensive, widely supported international campaign against Israel similar to the struggle against apartheid and racism in South Africa, stressing the need to escalate “popular resistance” against Israel with all the Palestinian organizations taking part.41
On 23 December, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad raised a demand for international protection for the Palestinian people in the face of Israel’s “acts of aggression and war,” calling to assign Israel full responsibility as the “occupying power,” to judge it for “acts of terror” it had perpetrated, and to force it to comply with international law and the resolutions of international institutions.42
Along with refusing to resume negotiations without preconditions and preparing for a confrontation, the PA has, via Fatah, been preventing Palestinian elements from opening independent channels of dialogue with Israel. For example, Hatam abd al-Khader, head of the Al-Quds Committee in Fatah’s Department of Recruitment and Organization, noted that Fatah in tandem with other Palestinian organizations had thwarted an academic gathering of Israelis and Palestinians planned for eastern Jerusalem. It would have sought to work out terms for forming a common parliament, to be called “the Third Government,” with 1,500 members who would have tried to reach an agreement on an Israeli-Palestinian confederation with American and European support.
Abd al-Khader claimed that the Palestinians involved were “trying to circumvent the established and valid Palestinian position, which rejects meetings or negotiations with Israelis so long as settlement continues and Israel continues its acts of repression.” He said the group had deviated from the national consensus and stressed that “we are not against Palestinian intellectuals coming up with ideas, but they cannot present them on their own without permission of the Palestinian leadership and the PLO.” According to al-Khader the Palestinian group included, among others, Ziad abu Ziad and Hind Khoury.43
The Palestinian Authority Reconsiders Recognition of Israel
Lately in the PA there have been new tones regarding recognition of Israel and the future of the political agreements that were signed with it. In a closed meeting with members of the PLO Executive Committee, Abbas raised doubts about the future of relations with Israel, given what he called “the return of the civil administration,” meaning effective Israeli control of the West Bank.
A WAFA report quoted some of Abbas’ words in this meeting:
I told him [President Obama] that the Palestinian Authority is no longer an authority because they’ve brought back the civil administration, and we have no responsibility, no powers, and there is nothing we can do. We ask ourselves an important question, the Authority is no longer an authority! And what comes next? I want us to think seriously about the question and we will hear opinions and ideas in the coming meetings or in other meetings. However, it’s important that this be as soon as possible, with the issue so pressing; this question greatly perturbs us, what comes next? What are we to do, and what is the next step? We must think seriously because this is the future of a people, so that we don’t make a mistake or do something futile.44
On 23 December, at a Fatah event in the Bethlehem area, Muhammad Shtayyeh of the Fatah Central Committee very harshly attacked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his statements on the status of Jerusalem. Shtayyeh warned Netanyahu: “If you don’t want to distinguish between Abu Ghnaim [Har Homa, a Jewish neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem] and Tel Aviv, we won’t make a distinction between Ramallah and Jaffa.”45 His words imply a threat to reconsider the recognition of Israel if the Israeli government fails to recognize the 1967 borders.
Another Fatah Central Committee member, Saeb Erekat, said in a 25 December interview with Kol Falestin that the temporary PLO leadership would make a decision on future relations with Israel after 26 January.46 And Hanan Ashrawi, also a member of the same committee, told Kol Falestin a day later that retracting recognition of Israel was one of the options to be discussed after all political processes had been exhausted.47
Summary and Assessment
The Fatah-Hamas reconciliation will likely bring about a historic change in the PLO, which for the first time will incorporate Palestinian Islamist organizations. Since Hamas’ creation in 1987, the PLO’s status as the sole and exclusive representative of the Palestinian people has been eroding. Talks in the 1990s on adding Hamas to the PLO did not go smoothly because of disputes over Hamas’ representation on the PNC. During the Second Intifada, the higher coordinating body of the Palestinian organizations – the Islamic National Forces – fulfilled the PLO’s role as the decision-making authority in the struggle against Israel, and it held discussions on how to unite all the forces under one roof. But Hamas’ victory in the January 2006 parliamentary elections and the subsequent Fatah-Hamas clash produced two Palestinian governments in the West Bank and Gaza respectively, which have fought each other over representing the Palestinians.
Hamas has now agreed to join Fatah while giving up its past preconditions of substantial representation in its institutions. The move reflects the movement’s great confidence in its ability under present circumstances to win considerable gains and even a decisive majority in the PNC elections – which amounts to taking over the PLO. This sense of growing clout stems first and foremost from the consequences of the Arab Spring, or more precisely the Islamic Spring, which has swept the Middle East over the past year and empowered the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other countries. The worldwide Muslim Brotherhood is the parent-movement of Hamas, which serves as its Palestinian branch. For years under Mubarak’s regime, Egypt gave backing to the PA. Now, in the wake of the revolution, Egypt is gradually switching its loyalty and stands to become a huge source of strength for Hamas, especially once the Muslim Brotherhood forms the next government there after the election process ends in January.
The uprising in Syria poses problems for Hamas, but only of a temporary nature. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is leading the revolt against Assad’s regime and is fully backed by Turkey. Although Hamas was supported for years by the regimes of both Hafez and Bashar Assad, even if the government falls, Hamas does not stand to be damaged.
Hamas’ pragmatism, as manifested in its willingness to openly accept Abbas’ authority as both president of the PA and head of the PLO, in no way indicates a strategic shift in Hamas’ policy or acceptance of the PLO’s approach – least of all with regard to the interim agreements with Israel and their origin in the letter of mutual recognition signed by Israel and Arafat in September 1993. Entering the PLO institutions through the front door, Hamas is implementing a Trojan-horse strategy to conquer the supreme source of Palestinian authority from within, international recognition and all. Hamas sees this as the shortest and most effective path to reaping the profits of the Islamic Spring, which is boosting antagonism toward Israel among Middle Eastern regimes and peoples, and would make it very difficult for the PA to negotiate with Israel absent broad domestic and Arab support.
For Hamas, the central lesson from the Arab Spring is the U.S. administration’s and the European Union’s abandonment of the pro-Western regimes and their readiness, even haste, to support the popular revolutions and recognize the Muslim Brotherhood as a legitimate political actor. To Hamas this indicates that the West is weak and can do nothing but accept the reality that the rebelling peoples dictate, and that the more this process accelerates and is translated into political and military power, the greater its weight in shaping the Middle Eastern and international arenas.
Hamas has despaired of winning Western recognition based on its electoral victory as the leading party or for the government it has established in Gaza; instead it seeks to attain the great prize by taking over the PLO. Hence it is prepared for temporary tactical flexibility, thereby obligating Abbas to implement the reform of the PLO and hold general parliamentary and presidential elections in the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas believes that it is highly likely to prevail in these elections, and that once it has a majority in the PA and PLO institutions, it will be internationally recognized and replace Fatah in representing the Palestinian people both in Palestine and the diaspora. In the interim stage, through joining the temporary PLO leadership, Hamas has succeeded in subverting Abbas’ independence in PLO decision-making and in binding him to decisions that the new leadership will make.
Abbas’ considerations are a mirror image of Hamas’ assessment of the effects of the Islamic Spring. He has moved toward the radical pole to ensure his political survival and prevent a domestic popular uprising against the PA. His cooperation with Hamas is meant to prove his loyalty to the bedrock national principles (Mubarak was charged with lacking such loyalty) and to provide him with a (temporary) insurance policy.
That, it appears, is what motivates Abbas to pose preconditions for negotiations with Israel that he knows are completely unacceptable to its government, and to prepare in advance for the failure of the negotiation channel while trying to cast the full blame on Israel. In parallel, he is devising an alternative to the political process by adopting a strategy of confrontation with Israel both politically and on the ground, one that will turn the Palestinian energies built up during the Arab and Islamic Spring in Israel’s direction.
While Abbas speaks seemingly innocently of “peaceful popular resistance,” in the PA’s terminology the phrase means protest activity that includes attempts to injure and kill Israeli soldiers and civilians. The reception as national heroes of Palestinian terrorists freed in exchange for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and Abbas’ publicized meetings – despite Israeli protests – with prominent Palestinian terrorists, some of whom have been appointed to senior positions in the PA, again attest to the PA’s view of terror as legitimate and praiseworthy.
As in the Second Intifada, the PA is assigning the main role in the conflict with Israel to Fatah, which will serve as its subcontractor for the confrontations in tandem with the other Palestinian organizations. Fatah, which is preparing for the general elections in May, can capitalize on this revived organizational activity to lead the wide-scale strategy of conflict that Abbas has charted. Past experience indicates that violent clashes of the “popular resistance” kind can potentially escalate to a serious deterioration in security.
Traditionally, the main factor in the PLO’s formulation of political strategy has been the regional balance of power. Analysis of that balance led to decisions to resort to political dialogue with Israel. The change in the regional balance of power to Israel’s detriment amid the revolutions of the Arab and Islamic Spring alters the PLO’s and the PA’s assessments, and is another factor encouraging a tougher, uncompromising political line and the strategy of confrontation, spiced with a new language about renouncing recognition of Israel and a two-state solution to the conflict.
From Israel’s standpoint the trends in the Middle East and in the Palestinian arena are ominous. The PA is forging a strategic alliance with radical Islamic elements, while at the same time the West recognizes their patron – the Muslim Brotherhood – and pursues a policy that in the Middle East appears as weakness. The move by Abbas ensures his regime’s stability for a short time, but will likely emerge as cutting off the branch he sits on and building a bridgehead to Hamas’ full takeover of the PA and the PLO institutions. That scenario would severely challenge Israel in the Palestinian arena and carry a potential for regional escalation.
Jordan, for its part, is closely following the Palestinian developments. Fatah and Hamas have agreed to exclude the Jordanian arena from the electoral process for the PNC. If the Palestinians in Jordan, who constitute a large majority of its population, vote for Palestinian national institutions, tensions with Jordan are the likely result, reopening the historical wounds in Jordanian-Palestinian relations and raising the question of the legitimacy of the Hashemite Royal House. Like Israel, Jordan faces an existential “Palestinian problem” that would emerge in its full severity after the birth of the Palestinian state, forcing the Palestinians in Jordan to decide the question of their loyalty.
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2. The members of the committee are: Farouk Kadoumi, Saeb Erekat, Ahmed Qureia, Taysir Khaled, Abd al-Rahim Mallouh, Zakaria al-Agah, Ali Is’haq, Muhammad Abu Isma’il, Hanna Amira, Salah Raafat, Yasser Abed Rabbo, Assad Abdel Rahman, Ghassan Ash-Shakaa, Muhammad Zuhdi al-Nashashibi, Hanan Ashrawi, and Ahmed Majdalani.
3. http://www.alwatanvoice.com/arabic/news/2011/12/22/230879.html, http://www.wafa.ps/arabic/index.php?action=detail&id=120341
7. Falestin (Gaza), 23 Dec 11; website of the Hamas bulletin: felesteen.ps
10. Falestin (Gaza), 23 Dec 11; website of the Hamas bulletin: felesteen.ps
16. Falestin (Gaza), 28 Dec 11; website of the Hamas bulletin: felesteen.ps
17. http://palestine-info.info/ar/default.aspx?xyz=U6Qq7k%2bcOd87MDI46m9rUxJEpMO%2bi1s7RMWXKDfdMY79nAIDPOwPLP4gg0%2bQSo9XOJ0UdxBrd9RnKQFsXf5xkEjAI4sJoQH9gSzEDZ%2b4s5BmF1e31cA89%2f2Me07HqvBLeI2OI2B1gAY%3d; Al-Hayat al-Jadida (Ramallah), 26 Dec. 11, p. 3
19. Falestin (Gaza), 28 Dec 11; website of the Hamas bulletin: felesteen.ps
21. http://www.palestine-info.info/ar/default.aspx?xyz=U6Qq7k%2bcOd87MDI46m9rUxJEpMO %2bi1s7qzzC%2fsIffK%2bf3A17QaLeoF8n7CJ2w7rWA8F4wKEUUrz89fPVy%2b3aOcuOkm7kjAW%2fM5TyZ4VMlTdnkperY2Mxg48vY6Y3DgN4Qpd6oCSWpGw%3d
25. Falestin (Gaza), 25 Dec 11; website of the Hamas bulletin: felesteen.ps
26. http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/88E0062F-5CEE-4B3B-A7EA-4EA3884F269C.htm ; Falestin (Gaza), 25 Dec 11; website of the Hamas bulletin: felesteen.ps
37. Al-Hayat al-Jadida (Ramallah), 1 Jan 12, p. 6
40. Al-Ayyam (Ramallah), 27 Dec 11, p. 3
43. Falestin (Gaza), 28 Dec 11; website of the Hamas bulletin: felesteen.ps
46. http://www.shanghaidaily.com/article/article_xinhua.asp?id=41379; Falestin (Gaza), 26 Dec 11; website of the Hamas bulletin: felesteen.ps
47. http://www.shanghaidaily.com/article/article_xinhua.asp?id=41379 ; Falestin (Gaza), 26 Dec 11; website of the Hamas bulletin: felesteen.ps
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Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi is a senior researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is a co-founder of the Orient Research Group Ltd. and is a former advisor to the Policy Planning Division of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.