What has Gaza gained since Hamas won four years ago?
As Israel and the Palestinian Authority prepare to resume indirect talks, through American mediation, some are insisting that the Islamist movement Hamas must be brought into the process. Hamas, the argument goes, is capable of obstructing progress in negotiations, so that only by engaging the group can the United States and the international community avoid such an outcome. The rationale is naive.
It is naive, above all, because it overlooks the extent to which Hamas has undermined the core principle guiding the regional strategy of the Palestinians until the death of Yasser Arafat. Under its late leader, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation defended what was known as the "independent Palestinian decision", which meant ensuring the Palestinian cause would not fall under the control of individual Arab regimes. Among Mr Arafat's bitterest rivals was Syria's President Hafez al Assad, who repeatedly sought, and failed, to bring the PLO under Syrian authority.
Hamas has been far less successful than Mr Arafat in exploiting Arab contradictions. Where the one-time PLO chairman was able during the 1970s to play Arab regimes off against one another, and even blackmail states for concessions, Hamas evolved in a very different environment. The movement opposed the Oslo process during the 1990s, and when it failed and Israel reoccupied the West Bank in 2002, Hamas was able to take advantage of the renewed tension, and the growing discredit of Mr Arafat and his Fatah movement, to gain politically in Palestinian areas.
Hamas reinforced its ties with Syria and Iran, two regional actors sharing its antipathy for the Palestinian Authority, later led by Mahmoud Abbas. Both Damascus and Tehran viewed Hamas as a useful tool to advance their agendas - the Iranians, to block any breakthrough on the Palestinian-Israeli front, the Syrians to use such obstacles as leverage in their own track with Israel. Hamas, needing allies against Mr Abbas and Fatah, went along with this. It also benefited from Iranian funding and arms, while its effective leader, Khaled Meshaal, who heads the movement's political bureau, made Damascus his headquarters in 2001.
The price was a substantial diminution in the independence of Palestinian decision-making. The impact on Palestinians was exacerbated when Hamas won a majority in the 2006 legislative elections. While Mr Abbas has been accused by his detractors, with some justification, of having lost the regional and international margin of manoeuvre Mr Arafat managed to retain, the damage wrought by Hamas has been even worse. Today the movement is highly dependent on Syria and Iran, whose calculations (along with Israeli intransigence) can only inhibit the emergence of an independent Palestinian state; it also offers no programme, beyond a long-term truce with Israel or war, that can appeal to Palestinians.
Hamas' victory mainly resulted from Fatah's incompetence, rather than any widespread embrace of the movement's policies. And the reality is that Hamas is weakening today. Initiating a dialogue would not only decisively undercut Mr Abbas, it would do so at a time when the Islamist movement desperately needs a success to overcome its political setbacks. Several developments have been in Hamas' disfavour in the past year and a half. The movement's close co-ordination with Syria and Iran has continued to provoke Palestinian unease, all the more so when this contributed to the Gaza war of December 2008-January 2009. Hamas broke the truce then in place with Israel, with Syrian and Iranian encouragement. This infuriated Egypt, which was then trying to negotiate a truce extension, leading to a falling-out between Cairo and Damascus.
For Gazans, the war was an unmitigated disaster. Israel continues to impose a blockade on the strip, hampering reconstruction, while Egypt is working to seal its own border with Gaza. Hamas provoked an unnecessary conflict, one whose aftershocks it was ill-prepared to absorb, even as it alienated the one Arab state, Egypt, controlling access to the territory. The Egyptian government regards Hamas' collaboration with Iran and Hizbollah, particularly the latter's arms smuggling networks into Gaza, as a domestic security threat. This only reminds Palestinians how deeply ensnared they are in regional rivalries beyond their control.
Meanwhile, the much-maligned Palestinian Authority is moving ahead with an institution-building project under its prime minister Salam Fayyad. The West Bank is more stable than it has been in years. Israel is not helping Mr Abbas, and seems little interested in a genuine settlement. However, that does not necessarily make the Hamas option more palatable to Palestinians. A long-term truce is effectively in place, and it is Mr Fayyad who is making the most of it, while Palestinians have no stomach for a new armed struggle, Hamas' default scheme if all else fails.
Islamist parties have lost momentum throughout the Middle East in recent years. Despite their many differences, all have one problem in common: they offer no persuasive vision for nation-building. In Iraq's elections last weekend, religious parties lost ground to broad-based "nationalist" lists. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is divided over how to deal with the state. Hamas has failed in its bid at governing, and its crushing of Fatah in Gaza in 2007 created many enemies. Even Hizbollah, arguably the most successful of the Islamist groups, has dangerously antagonised Lebanon's Sunnis in recent years, while all it offers to the Lebanese is a prospect of incessant conflict with Israel.
Handing Hamas a lifeline now is a terrible idea. It would only increase Syrian and Iranian control over the Palestinians at a time when Mr Fayyad is strengthening autonomous state institutions. It would also indicate that Hamas has succeeded, when the movement has, in fact, systematically undercut Palestinian interests. Hamas may eventually have to be brought into peace talks, assuming that Israel ever makes serious territorial concessions. But that should happen only when the movement's power is greatly diminished, not a moment sooner.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut
Published: March 11, 2010 04:00 AM