Since winning the Palestinian elections in January 2006, Hamas has faced escalating pressures. It has been evolving into an organization whose activities are primarily political mixed with resistance, whereas in the past its activities were primarily resistance combined with political. Among the most important questions it confronts is how to formulate a political vision acceptable to others (i.e. the West) that does not relinquish the basic principles that distinguish the movement, principally resistance and refusing to recognize Israel. This is the central challenge Hamas has faced repeatedly: when it won the elections, when it first proposed a unity government with other Palestinian factions, when the Quartet imposed its conditions, in its dialogue with Fatah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and in all of its contacts with international parties. And it is the same challenge that will determine the success or failure of the intra-Palestinian talks in Cairo, due to resume shortly.
So far Hamas has tried to reconcile its principles with the requirements of the new era by accepting the two-state solution, though in a convoluted form: creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza without recognizing Israel but rather signing a long-term (ten to twenty-year) truce with it. For Hamas, this formula saves face before its supporters and at the same time shows great flexibility when compared with Hamas’s founding objective of liberating Palestine from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. Hamas proposes this formula as a basis for intra-Palestinian agreement in the Cairo talks. Some of its leaders say that they can market this position internationally—that there are European parties willing to accept it, even if only temporarily—especially given Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lack of support for the two-state solution.
The other Palestinian factions, however, especially Fatah and President Abbas (with support from Egypt), so far have demanded explicit adherence to the two-state solution, including a crystal-clear recognition of Israel. Fatah and Egypt have two reasons for wanting Hamas to offer a clear, tangible concession. First, following the Israeli right’s electoral victory, Israeli intransigence provides an opportunity for the Palestinian and Arab parties to seize the initiative and embarrass Israel internationally, demonstrating that there is no partner for peace on the Israeli side, not the Palestinian side. Second, Fatah and Egypt want to force Hamas’ hand by pushing it away from its basic principles and Iranian influence. A Hamas concession would mean that it is inching closer to the Fatah/Abbas position, leading Hamas supporters to wonder what the difference is between Hamas and other parties, and detracting from Hamas’ popularity.
This second objective dovetails with a broader Egyptian policy aimed at weakening Hamas and trying to curb its political influence in Gaza in particular. The 2007 Hamas takeover of Gaza affected Egypt more than any other country. While there is a possibility that Americans or Europeans would tolerate a Palestinian consensus including loosely-worded formulas that allow Hamas to participate, it is the Egyptians who are taking a hard-line approach and pressing Hamas into an unequivocal stance. Egypt wants to minimize the chances of Hamas winning future Palestinian elections. Egypt’s delicate domestic situation cannot withstand the emergence of a successful or partly successful Muslim Brotherhood-inspired experiment anywhere in the Arab world, and certainly not on its very doorstep. The situation is all the more sensitive because Hamas is confronting the Israeli occupation, deeply unpopular with most Egyptians, which provides a tool for Egyptian Islamists to use in mobilizing the street against the government. But Cairo is aware that Hamas’ position is awkward and its choices are limited, especially with escalating resentment against some of Hamas’ policies within Gaza before, during, and after the recent war, which is pushing Hamas to adopt a more flexible attitude.
Examining Cairo’s clear interests and central role is critical to understanding the Palestinian reconciliation talks. In its desire to control the outcome, Egypt has limited the scope of meetings of the five dialogue committees and insisted on the presence of an Egyptian official in each of the dialogue committees as the de facto chairman. It has also restricted the ability of Palestinian representatives to contact leaders of their factions, prompting some of them to joke that they are under “friendly arrest” by Egypt. In some respects, the Cairo talks can be seen as, at heart, a dialogue between the Egyptian government and Hamas.
Egypt has a regional, as well as domestic, reason for insisting on an outcome that will be interpreted by all parties as an Egyptian success. With recent diplomatic successes by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey—as well as rising Iranian influence—Cairo feels that any failure would have heavy political and diplomatic costs. Hamas is very much aware of Cairo’s need for success, and is seeking to exploit this to the hilt. Thus the failure of the Palestinian dialogue could cost Hamas profoundly at the local level and Egypt at the regional level.
So far, contrary to media portrayals, Hamas has shown great flexibility in four of the five dialogue committees: the security forces reform committee, the PLO restructuring committee, the reconciliation committee, and the legislative and presidential elections committee. A major obstacle remains in the national consensus government committee. Here, the point of contention is that Hamas at first rejected any form of government that recognized Israel or that did not accept resistance. Fatah proposed a national consensus government or a technocratic government without a political platform, so as to not be boycotted by the Western world, its mission being to prepare for the elections and administer the reconstruction of Gaza. After difficult talks, Hamas appears to have accepted the formula of a government without a political platform. It is hard to imagine Hamas accepting Fatah’s other demands, however, including who will lead the government and keeping the prime minister’s office in Ramallah.
Missing from the talks’ agenda and also from the Egyptian effort is a move that could serve most of these competing agendas, namely opening the Erez checkpoint to traffic between the West Bank and Gaza. The focus is now entirely on the Rafah crossing to Sinai, which worries Egypt, deepens the division between the two Palestinian sides, and stokes Hamas fears of dependence on Egypt. Opening the Erez crossing point would restore cohesion between the West Bank and Gaza, relieve pressure on Egypt, and allows Hamas to be more flexible in negotiating seats for the government’s ministers, presidency, and security services. What Egypt can do is to press in this direction, especially as Israeli security concerns can be mitigated; a military truce or calm between Israel and Hamas would govern the relationship between the two sides, and Israeli security supervision of the crossing would remain in place. Addressing this issue could be critical for the talks, which in turn have important implications not only for Palestine but the entire region.
Khaled Hroub directs the Cambridge Arab Media Project at the University of Cambridge. Paul Wulfsberg translated this article from Arabic.