Don’t let the recent fanfare at the UN fool you, Hamas remains an important and troubling part of the Israel-Palestine puzzle.
Whichever way you look at it, it would appear that Mahmoud Abbas pulled off something of a masterstroke at the UN last month. Almost overnight Abbas transformed himself from the much-scorned PLO old-timer of yesteryear into a reinvigorated champion of Arab and Palestinian independence. Of course it is difficult to say whether Abbas’ decision to take the UN route will pay off in the medium to long-term. But, for the time being at least it seems that the PA President has resuscitated his standing and credibility among the Palestinian people.
So where is Hamas in all of this? Throughout the unfolding UN drama, Hamas did make statements criticising the bid for statehood, but in large part, they did so from the sidelines. While Abbas received extravagant standing ovations on the international stage, Ismail Haniyeh and his Hamas movement remained confined to relative obscurity in Gaza. In Ramallah, the seat of Palestinian Authority (PA)/Fatah power in the West Bank, we witnessed scenes of joy and jubilation, whereas in Gaza City, the camera crews were notably absent. Such was the sensitivity surrounding this issue for continued Fatah-Hamas relations, that Fatah even agreed ahead of time (on September 19th) not to allow their few supporters in Gaza to hold demonstrations in favour of the UN bid.
In public Haniyeh both lamented the lack of consultation going into the UN decision and articulated his ideological opposition to the idea of applying for statehood before complete armed liberation of “Historic Palestine”. But in private the Hamas Prime Minister surely appreciates that he has been outmanoeuvred by his long-time foe this time around.
The question is whether Abbas can push through and maintain his political advantage over time or whether this bold UN initiative will come back to haunt him. There are already signs that Abbas’ defiance of the United States is beginning to cost him dearly. The recent news of the decision by Congress to freeze $200 million worth of economic aid to the PA, no doubt signals the opening salvo of further outside pressure to come.
On top of that, Abbas is now also obliged to move forward in implementing the so-called “reconciliation” talks with Hamas which were left inconclusive in May earlier this year. If progress is made on this front, he is likely to again incur the wrath of Congress, this time in the form of an even more painful $500 million penalty. But unfortunately political realities on the ground dictate that Abbas cannot afford to ignore Hamas despite temporarily outflanking them at the UN.
In the wake of Abbas’ speech, Netanyahu’s extreme Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman cried foul, accusing the PA President of “incitement”. This in spite of the fact that Abbas made it clear in his speech that his aim was not to de-legitimise Israel but rather to gain international legitimacy for a future Palestinian state. A sense of “incitement” becomes even more difficult to detect when the Palestinian leader states that he wishes to extend “our hands” to the Israeli people and government for “peace-making” and building a future for “our children” to enjoy freedom, security and prosperity. This is not the type of hopeful content we can expect to find in any Hamas speech any time soon. In fact Lieberman’s excessive focus and demonisation of Abbas clouds Israel’s real problem for the future. Hamas’ continued and undisputed control of Gaza since 2006 means that at some point it must play some role in official Palestinian politics and governing. The ever-nearing reconciliation negotiations present the most troubling and clear sign of this.
The rhetoric of total liberation of all of “Palestine” through armed insurrection is a far more obvious example of incitement than Abbas’ modest plea at the UN for the international community to recognise his 22% as a state. The real challenge for Israeli decision-makers for the future is not quibbling with Fatah representatives over various preconditions, but finding some way to deal with the problem of an implacable foe in Hamas, that has long since discarded any notion of compromise in the name of religious dogma.