Over the past few weeks, as Palestinian reconciliation efforts have inched forward, some of Hamas’s leaders have provoked interest by apparently staking out new positions. They have not only agreed to enter the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), thus participating in a body that signed the Oslo Accords with Israel, a pact the group has long opposed, but also committed themselves to “popular resistance,” an alternative to the armed activity through which the group gained international notoriety. But for every tentative step by one leader, there is a restatement of old positions—sometimes in very pugnacious form—by another. What is happening to the movement? Is Hamas mellowing?

No. Or at least not yet.

The two halves of the Palestinian Authority (PA)—one in the West Bank headed by Fatah and the other in Gaza headed by Hamas—are still badly divided, but the political movements controlling each half seem to be taking reconciliation efforts seriously. To be sure, they have gone through the motions of various efforts for years, but over the past few months there are signs that key leaders in both movements are attempting to place reconciliation much higher on the list of priorities. 

The concrete successes of Palestinian reconciliation to date are meager indeed, but the tone of Palestinian public discussions has shifted markedly—though it seems to alternate from day to day between soothing talk of unity and angry charges of duplicity. Whatever the outcome of this round of unity efforts, the idea of reconciliation will not likely expire anytime soon since the only alternatives (the continuation of two-state diplomacy for Fatah and “resistance” and entrenchment in Gaza for Hamas) may have run their course for the present.

Thus, though Hamas’s recent steps are significant, they do not represent any clear commitment to a different path; each one has left an escape hatch gaping open. But Hamas’s leaders have begun to involve their movement in a series of processes over which they do not have complete control, and the incorporation of Hamas into regional diplomacy is a logical and desirable (though still risky) outcome. 
What measures has Hamas now taken and how much do they commit the movement to irreversible change?

Joining the PLO

First, Hamas has agreed with Fatah to enter the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella body that represents—in the eyes of many Palestinians as well as numerous international proclamations—the “sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” It is the PLO that signed the Oslo Accords and that acts diplomatically on behalf of Palestinians. The organization is currently chaired by Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas. By entering the PLO, is Hamas signaling its acceptance of the Oslo Accords and of Abbas’s leadership?

Not really. Both Hamas and its rivals have always agreed that in principle Hamas should be part of the PLO, though they generally have never come to terms with the practicalities of such a step. Hamas has had no desire to submit itself to PLO decisions, and domin    ant factions in the PLO have remained concerned about being edged aside by Hamas. Thus, periodic talks about how to incorporate Hamas have been strong on vague agreements but always bog down on the details. In 2005, as part of a package agreement that brought Hamas into parliamentary elections, Palestinian political factions (including Fatah and Hamas) agreed in Cairo to sketch out steps to bring Hamas into the PLO, but that agreement was never implemented. Since the Hamas-Fatah civil war of 2007, various reconciliation proposals have referred to the Cairo agreement, but none has put much meat on the bones of an unimplemented pledge.

The 2011 revival of reconciliation efforts pushes things a bit farther along—but only a bit. Palestinian factions have agreed to construct an ad hoc body containing all factions to coordinate Palestinian affairs and make decisions jointly while they work together to build a reformed, inclusive PLO. They claim that the aim is to hold elections for the Palestinian National Council (PNC), an assembly designed to represent Palestinians throughout the world and the oversight body for the PLO. But how that inclusive PLO will be built is unclear, and PNC elections, while politically unassailable, are also a practical impossibility. For instance, Palestinian officials are just coming to grips with the reality that Palestinians who are citizens of Israel or Jordan might not be allowed—or dare—to vote without jeopardizing their local citizenship.

In the meantime—which could be a very long period indeed—the factions have agreed to only a formula for collective decisionmaking in which all prominent actors get a veto. And activating such structures does not demand acceptance of the Olso Accords or even of Abbas’s authority—as Hamas made clear when it criticized Abbas’s dutiful decision to show up for a Quartet-sponsored meeting with Israeli negotiators in Jordan in early January. 

Thus, agreeing to join the PLO leaves enormous loopholes and does not commit Hamas to much of anything. Indeed, Hamas leaders have insisted that they have not accepted Oslo and will not accept the legitimacy of Israel. 

Still, Hamas has allowed itself to be pointed in a clear direction of consensual decisionmaking. The movement’s insistence that it will not recognize Israel has its own loopholes, since political parties and movements are not the relevant actors for international agreements or for recognizing states—a point often made in internal Palestinian discussions by those seeking to coax Hamas into the fold. Hamas need not abandon its principles, they say; it only has to accept the authority of Palestinian institutions that will sign the relevant agreements and take the necessary steps. No more is asked of Hamas in this regard than was asked of Fatah when Oslo was signed—the party did not immediately revise its documents to do reflect its support of the agreements with Israel when PLO leaders from the movement signed the accords. Neither was Likud for that matter required to change its platform from opposition to support for the agreements or to clarify the evasive statements of its leaders before running in post-Oslo elections.

In short, those Hamas leaders who have led the movement into reconciliation efforts have embarked on a process that would allow Hamas to be incorporated as a diplomatic actor and subjected to authoritative Palestinian structures. In return, the movement would gain a voice in that diplomacy and a role in those structures. And the leaders have stressed their commitment to the process so strongly and insistently—with Khalid Mishal, the head of Hamas’s political bureau, recently referring to it as a “third birth” for the PLO (following its original founding by the Arab League in 1964 and the takeover of the organization by homegrown Palestinian factions in 1969)—that it will be hard to bury their new dedication to the organization.

Embracing Popular Resistance

Hamas’s second move is to accept “popular resistance” and a unilateral cease-fire with Israel. This step is significant, but more for the potential it offers for Hamas’s evolution in the future than for any sign that the movement has taken any irreversible steps.

Talk of popular resistance is hardly evidence that Hamas leaders have been reading Gandhi. First, Hamas leaders make clear that they still regard armed action as legitimate. And they have even suggested that the cease-fire does not mean an end to efforts to capture Israeli soldiers in order to force an exchange for Palestinian prisoners excluded from the last deal for Gilad Shalit. Then, Israel released over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit, an Israeli soldier held by Hamas for over five years. 

Second, this step away from violence is not breaking much new ideological ground. Hamas leaders have never rejected the idea of some sort of suspension of armed action in principle; indeed, they have held their fire for a prolonged period.

Finally, popular resistance is not quite the same as nonviolence, though there is considerable overlap. When Palestinians speak of popular resistance they often do so to distinguish it from what they call the “militarization” of the second intifada. And sometimes they do so nostalgically to recall the first intifada, characterized by strikes, demonstrations, founding of grassroots organizations—and restricted largely to fairly low-level violence, like stone throwing. Popular resistance means involving the entire society in the effort rather than allowing a small number of hardened fighters to dominate the political field.

And that is a step that Hamas has now endorsed. It has broad resonance within a Palestinian society still traumatized and exhausted from the second intifada and with a broader Arab public still transfixed by the accomplishments of Tunisian and Egyptian crowds in facing down tyrants. The approach also plays to what Hamas considers its strength: its deep engagement with Palestinian society. 

It is unclear what form popular resistance will take or even if there will be any surge of mass political activism from Palestinians at all. Attempts over the past year to jump-start a new wave have seen occasional, but very much unsustained, successes. What is far clearer is that the slogan has become one to which almost all Palestinian political actors wish to lay claim. 

Hamas’s embrace of popular resistance thus commits the movement to no permanent change in its organization or ideology but does allow it to tap into broader currents in Palestinian and Arab public opinion. And as with joining the PLO, this embrace has led to a marked change in tone and rhetoric but has not yet been connected with any concrete steps—either for the movement or for the people who are now supposed to take up their direct role in the national struggle.

Squabbling but not Splitting

Hamas’s moves in each of these areas have confused movement observers because leaders seem to be sending messages that are in tension with each other. Hamas wishes to join the PLO; it terms reconciliation with Fatah a “strategic choice” rather than a short-term maneuver; leaders stress that the various Palestinian factions need to develop a common political program; they claim that resistance needs to emphasize popular involvement and de-emphasize armed action—but Hamas will not change its vision or renounce armed struggle. 

Why such confusing signals? For a movement that has as many factions as Hamas, such conflicting indications should not be surprising. The driving force behind some of the new moves seems to be the external leadership in general, with Khalid Mishal specifically playing a leading role. This should be expected. Hamas’s organization is geographically scattered, with its highest decisionmaking body based in Gaza and Damascus, Syria—though recent events there are forcing it to search for alternative locations—and other leaders in the West Bank, Israeli prisons, and locations throughout the Arab world. From the perspective of this external leadership, regional challenges, such as the instability of the Syrian regime, and opportunities, including the rise of Islamists in Egypt and indeed across North Africa, suggest that this may be the time to question the stasis that has set in over the past few years. 

Others, such as the military wing, are more likely to be suspicious of attempts to turn away from armed action and wary of the possibility of becoming ensnared in diplomatic processes. And the Gaza government now views itself as bearing responsibility (quite happily, it should be added) for the administration of over one million Palestinians and may fear that the weight of its concerns are given insufficient attention. 

Hamas is hardly new to experiencing internal tensions and disagreements; observers have noted past instances in which various leaders send messages with strikingly different tones and content. Yet on no occasion has this led to anything like a schism in the movement as leaders almost always stay within the bounds of Hamas’s declared positions, pushing them in the direction that they wish without breaking movement discipline. And Muslim Brotherhood movements throughout the region (Hamas has its origins in Palestinian elements of the Brotherhood) often show a similar pattern of setting down general policy guidelines that feint in multiple directions and then allowing various tendencies within the organization to pursue slightly different versions of a common agenda.

Those who are looking for Hamas to take formal and unalterable steps to accept Israel or abandon violence—a definitive ideological signal—will probably find that only happens sometime (likely several years) after a genuine shift in the group’s behavior has occurred. For a movement like Hamas, one that prides itself on holding fast to fixed general principles while also being very practical and flexible in their application, formal ideological renunciations are often the last stage of a movement’s evolution. In this way, the group is similar to the German Social Democratic Party (which removed Marxism from its program in 1959, over a decade after the start of the Cold War) or Israel’s Revisionist movement (whose renunciation of claims to Jordan had long been forgotten by the time they were formally abandoned). 

So if Hamas were to take steps now, they would likely be ambiguous, reversible, and ideologically deniable. Is it taking any such steps at all?

An Uncertain Journey

Hamas is taking clear steps hinting at changes in its positions and its place in Palestinian politics, but it is far too early to call them irreversible measures. The organization is still attempting to be government, resistance movement, reform agent, and occasionally even loyal opposition all at the same time, without resolving the contradictory pulls of these missions. But its recent moves may set off processes that, over the long term, lead to entangling the movement—willingly, but unmistakably—in decisions and structures that will reconfigure the organization.

The reconciliation process, for instance, may make possible the revival of a more unified, if far less coherent, PA. Over the short term, the effect of such a move will not be large: Hamas will likely continue to dominate Gaza and Fatah will dominate the West Bank. But a new technocratic government may be appointed that both sides will have to acknowledge. 

And it is possible, though not inevitable, that the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC)—the parliament elected in 2006 that has not met in almost five years—will reconvene. Such a move would have some impact on Hamas. Its deputies have a clear majority in the body, but large parts of the parliamentary leadership pull in directions different from the rest of the movement. The West Bank is more prominently represented, for instance, and the PLC speaker, Aziz Dweik, has shown a bit of an independent streak, suggesting that sometimes he believes his responsibilities as speaker outweigh his partisan affiliation. With the revival of a unified legislative body, no longer would Hamas be able to rule completely by decree in Gaza. 

A new election commission has already been appointed. Of course, those elections still confront many obstacles—the two halves of the PA cite different electoral laws; the reconciliation agreement calls for PLC elections to coincide with impracticable PNC elections; Israel can inhibit voting in general and completely prevent it in Jerusalem.  But Fatah and Hamas may find that their constant taunting and accusations that the other is afraid of elections may actually result in balloting someday if they are not more careful.

Finally, in a mood that sparked curiosity and puzzlement in some Arab circles but virtually no global attention, Hamas has decided to construct a full Muslim Brotherhood organization. Hamas has always presented itself as springing from Brotherhood origins. But from the perspective of the weak—indeed, almost irrelevant—international Brotherhood organization, there was a single organization that spanned both banks of the Jordan. Shortly after Hamas’s 2006 electoral victory, Hamas’s external leadership initiated the step of formally disentangling the Jordanian and Palestinian movements, a complicated process that has finally been completed. Now Hamas wants to move one step further by formally establishing a Palestinian Brotherhood. 

The implications of such a step are not yet completely clear. To date, only the decision itself has been announced, but there are three significant long-term repercussions. First, it could lead to a shift of focus among Palestinian Islamists. Hamas’s identity—indeed its very name—has stressed “resistance.” But Brotherhood organizations portray themselves as comprehensive, with religious, personal, educational, social, charitable, and political dimensions.

Second, chains of command within the organization could shift—Khalid Mishal, for instance, might move from being the head of the political bureau of the organization to become the Palestinian Brotherhood’s “general supervisor,” a potentially more authoritative post. And third, the Palestinian Brotherhood might seek to not simply model the structure but also mimic the behavior of successful Islamist movements in North Africa, which have achieved great electoral success by emphasizing gradual political reform and soothing rhetoric. 

Hamas’s Motivations—and Others’ Responses

While Hamas’s destination is still very much uncertain, the motivation of its leaders for embarking on this path is much clearer. They seek to position the movement regionally to be able to take full advantage of the changes in Egypt and the rise of Islamists more generally—as well as to cope with the disintegration of the Syrian regime that has hosted them for so long. Reconciliation also offers the possibility of reemerging in the West Bank where much of the movement has been forced—sometimes quite harshly—into hibernation since 2007. 

The movement’s government in Gaza—which exercises authority quite effectively on the ground but remains internationally isolated—might be able to continue the process of prying open the diplomatic and economic window that has fallen ajar over the past year. And Hamas would also gain a voice in Palestinian decisionmaking and what might amount to a veto over international diplomacy coupled with deniability. In other words, President Mahmoud Abbas would be able to pursue diplomacy either subject to Hamas’s implicit consent or risk being held responsible for breaking the consensus national program. If Hamas wished (and it is certain that it would), it could allow Abbas to pursue diplomacy while not being directly associated with it.

Is this something to encourage internationally? There are substantial costs to be sure. First, it would be difficult to carry on serious, conflict-ending diplomacy in a context in which Hamas was given a powerful voice. The basis for a two-state solution would not be totally removed. Hamas for its part has left the door slightly open by indicating its willingness to accept a state based on the 1967 lines. It has rejected the idea that it will recognize Israel, but, as suggested above, the relevant question is whether it would accept as binding a Palestinian decision to recognize Israel, not whether it would change its own ideology. And Israel similarly has sometimes shown a willingness to negotiate indirectly with Hamas. 

But if two-state diplomacy would be theoretically possible, it would not be likely. Making decisions by consensus, as the Palestinians propose to do, is often a formula for paralysis. For its part, the current Israeli government has shown every interest in maintaining correct relations with the United States but no interest in a two-state solution as envisaged internationally over the past decade. And even if Palestinians and Israelis were able and willing, the United States, hampered as it is by legislation, election-year politics, and stunning tone deafness to Palestinian domestic politics, hardly seems to be in any position to sponsor viable negotiations. 

A second cost would be entrenching Hamas. Since the Islamist electoral victory of 2006, the United States has led an international effort to sideline, oust, isolate, and defeat the movement. Accepting Palestinian reconciliation would amount to an admission of failure.

Acknowledging that the “peace process” has reached a dead end in its current form and that Hamas is an unavoidable political player, however, should be viewed less as high costs to pay and more as a long-overdue recognition of hard political realities. The U.S. government does not have any enthusiasm or tools for addressing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at present. The potential payoff for Washington, then, is that this shift will automatically involve some conflict management; a Palestinian political system dominated by two movements that wish for now to avoid conflict with Israel may give the United States the respite it needs. 

And the restoration of a structure for Palestinian decisionmaking, while unlikely to lead to any breakthrough in the short term, is a necessary condition for any viable diplomacy in the future.

In speaking to some officials who were involved with Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy in 2005 and 2006, I have been struck by how many—especially on the European side, but even among some U.S. officials—see the reaction to Hamas’s victory as a tactical mistake. Rather than react by squeezing the movement at a moment when, for the first time, it had both a share of political responsibility and something to lose, the international reaction was to crush it. 

Taking a cautious rather than a hostile stance when it comes to Palestinian reconciliation and Hamas’s baby steps toward evolutionary change would not erase the mistakes of the past decade. But it may lay the basis for eventually recovering from them.

1) For an expert treatment of the issues, see Vladimir Pran’s International Foundation for Electoral Systems briefing paper, “Challenges to the 2012 Palestinian Elections.”