Peace talks could dilute Hamas’ power

Ismail Haniyeh, shown in 2014, was once prime minister of Gaza. He now will be the new leader of Hamas.
Ismail Haniyeh, shown in 2014, was once prime minister of Gaza. He now will be the new leader of Hamas. AP

Earlier this month, Khaled Meshaal, political leader of the Hamas movement, announced that his successor will be Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of Gaza between 2007 and 2014. This means that the center of gravity of that Palestinian movement will now switch from Meshaal’s exile in Qatar to Gaza. It also indicates that the charismatic Haniya, assisted by Yehiya Sinwar, the new, belligerent leader of Hamas’ military wing, will now take a more militant stance vis-à-vis Israel.

Indeed, Israel has been fighting Hamas since its founding in 1987 and, unfortunately, it might fight the organization again sooner or later. While licking its wounds from the last round in 2014, Operation Protective Edge, the radical Palestinian organization seems as determined to confront Israel militarily, regardless of the destruction and pain this inflicts on the people of Gaza. In its three decades, Hamas has steadily shown an impressive resilience, based primarily on staunch religious conviction. The new changing of the guards in its leadership spells even more trouble.

However, Hamas also launched its new General Policies and Principles Document, which carried some interesting messages. Two items in the document deserve special attention.

In its founding charter, Hamas proudly presented its ID: “The Islamic Resistance Movement is one of the wings of Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.” However, in the new document that linkage is erased. With Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas thought that it would be wise to lie low and dissociate itself from its mother movement. Signs of the Muslim Brotherhood were taken off the streets of Gaza, and Hamas strengthened its collaboration with Egypt in fighting Salafi Gihadists and ISIS supporters in Sinai.

Even more striking is what seems to be Hamas’ acceptance of a two-state solution. While reiterating its vow to free Palestine “from Naqurra in the north to Rashrash [Eilat] in the south, and from the Jordan River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west,” Hamas nevertheless expressed its acceptance of a Palestinian state in the pre-1967 borders, because it has become a “matter of Palestinian consensus.”

Mati Steinberg, an expert in Arab affairs at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, told Haaretz this month that, “Hamas knows that, contrary to its position, the majority of the Palestinian public supports in principle a settlement [with Israel] on the lines of the Arab initiative, provided that such a settlement is possible. Indeed, the document expresses adaptation on the side of Hamas, but this flexibility has a clear limit: Hamas still negates any legitimization of Israel.”

How does Hamas square this circle? By borrowing an idea from early Muslim tradition: Hudna, a temporary truce, to be deliberately broken when the time is right. As Abdel Aziz Rantissi, one of the founders of Hamas, told Reuters in 2004, “We accept a state in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. We propose a 10-year truce in return for [Israeli] withdrawal and the establishment of a state.” As a true Muslim he could accept that, while not relinquishing his hope to free all of Palestine in the future.

Prompted by this, in 2007, I wrote an open letter to a Hamas supporter in Gaza, in which I proposed to double the period of the Hudna: “In 20 years you can build a state for your people, who long have deserved one. …You can do it with our cooperation — a happy neighbor is a good neighbor — or you can do it yourself. But instead of deceiving your children that Israel one day will just disappear, do something real for their future. And what happens after 20 years? Allah hu akbar, as we say in our region, God is Great.”

Today, when Hamas is forced to conform with al-Sisi, the nemesis of the Muslim Brotherhood, and to adjust itself to the Palestinian consensus on two-state solution, it’s time for Israel to seize the opportunity. With President Trump coming to the region soon, Israel should jump-start the peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Any such progress will push Hamas further away from its religious fanaticism into political pragmatism — and diminish its veto power on the future of Palestinians and Israelis alike.