Cruel Middle East ironies abound. And here’s a doozy for you.
Why is it that Hamas — purveyor of terror, launcher of Iranian-supplied rockets, and source of “death to the Jews” tropes — is getting more attention, traction, legitimacy and support than the “good” Palestinian, the reasonable and grandfatherly Mahmoud Abbas, who has foresworn violence in favor of negotiations? Since the crisis began, President Obama seems to have talked to every other Middle Eastern leader except Abbas.
The Israeli operation against Hamas may yet take a large bite out of the Palestinian Islamist organization in Gaza, but the “Hamas trumps Abbas” dynamic has been underway for some time now and is likely to continue. I’d offer four reasons why.
Abbas’s party is in disarray. The Islamists’ victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, its takeover of Gaza in 2007, Fatah’s own sense of political drift, and the absence of a credible peace process created an opening for Hamas — the religious manifestation of Palestinian nationalism. Had Yasir Arafat still been alive, Hamas would never have come as far as it has.
Arafat’s death left a huge leadership vacuum in a political culture where persona, not institutions, figures prominently. Abbas had electoral legitimacy but he lacked the authority, street cred, and elan of the historical struggle. And in a Palestinian national movement without direction and strategy, it didn’t take much to create an alternative to a tired, divided, corrupt, and ineffective Fatah.
Hawks Rule the Roost
We don’t like to admit it, but Middle East politics is the domain not of the doves but of hard men who can sometimes be pragmatists — but certainly not in response to sentimental or idealized desires.
Peacemaking on the Israeli side has never been — and is likely never to be — owned by the left. From Israeli premiers Menachem Begin to Yitzhak Rabin (breaker of bones during the first Intifada) to Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, the story of the Arab-Israeli negotiations is one of tough guys whose calculations were reshaped by necessity and self-interest, and who could deliver something tangible to the other side while getting away with it politically at home.
Abbas may well be the best Palestinian partner Israel has ever had. But if he can’t deliver, well, Houston we have a problem.
Being the darling of the West counts for something. For good reason, Abbas and his reality-based prime minister, Salam Fayyad, emerged as the great hope among the peace-making set: Here were reasonable, moderate men who eschewed violence and were actually interested in state-building. But could they actually deliver what various Israeli governments wanted?
Irony of ironies, it was Hamas that emerged as the object of Israel’s real attentions — the Islamist nationalists, it turned out, had what Israel needed and could deliver it. When Israel wanted a ceasefire, who did it negotiate with? Hamas, not Abbas. When Israel wanted Gilad Shalit back, who did it negotiate with? Hamas, not Abbas. Indeed, the astute Israel journalist Aluf Benn wrote last week that Israel killed the de facto head of Hamas’s military wing — Ahmad al-Jaabari — because he was no longer willing or able to play the role of Israel’s policeman, squelching Hamas and jihadi rocket fire into Israel. In exchange for doing so, Benn posits, Israel shipped in shekels for Gaza’s banks and support for Gaza’s infrastructure. Jaabari had street cred and delivered for four years — Abbas has little and couldn’t.
Netanyahu’s Comfort Zone
Bibi is who he is. Right now, he’s a legitimate Israeli leader who may well be the only political figure capable of leading the country. Whether he can lead Israel to real peace with the Palestinians is another matter entirely.
It’s politically inconvenient to admit it, but given Bibi’s world view — which is profoundly shaped by suspicion and mistrust of the Arabs and Palestinians — he’s more comfortable in the world of Hamas than of Abbas. This is a world of toughness, of security, and of defending the Jewish state against Hamas rockets, incitement, and anti-Semitism. Hamas’s behavior merely validates Netanyahu’s view of reality — and it empowers him to rise to the role of heroic defender of Israel.
Netanyahu didn’t seek out a war over Hamas’s rockets, which threaten an increasing number of Israeli towns and cities. But he is truly in his element in dealing with it. Sure he’d like to destroy Hamas and negotiate with Abbas — but on his terms. Indeed, the world of a negotiation over borders, refugees, Jerusalem is a world of great discomfort for Netanyahu, because it will force choices that run against his nature, his politics, and his ideology.
Hamas isn’t a cheap excuse conjured up to avoid negotiating with the Palestinians, of course. But the fact that Abbas can’t control Hamas and that Arab states, particularly Egypt, now embrace it openly is precisely why Bibi believes he must be cautious in any negotiations. He may intellectually accept the possibility that the absence of meaningful negotiations actually empowers Hamas. But never emotionally. If you see the world through an us vs. them filter, you’re rarely responsible for the problem — it’s almost always the other guy’s fault.
The Islamist Spring
Even while their publics identified with the Palestinian cause, the Arab states never really trusted the Palestinian national movement and its organizational embodiment, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
With the exception of Egypt, every Arab state bordering Israel had a bloody conflict with the PLO. For these states, Palestinians represented a threat either from refugee populations or from the possibility that the Palestinian armed struggle would drag the Arabs into an unwanted or untimely war.
Tensions and differences still persist. But the Arab — really Islamist — Spring has created a major new realignment.
The real diplomatic coup for the Palestinians isn’t Abbas’s effort toward winning statehood recognition at the United Nations. It’s the victories and growing influence of Islamists in Arab politics, which have given Hamas greater respectability and support. Two of Israel’s most important Middle East friends — Turkey and Egypt — are now running interference for Hamas as their own ties with the Israelis have gotten colder. And these new allies aren’t outliers like Iran and Syria. They are friends of the United States and very much in the center of the international community.
It’s testament to the weakness of Abbas and the PLO that it is Hamas’s rockets, not Abbas’s diplomacy, that has placed the Palestinian issue once again on center stage. The Palestinian president is nowhere to be found.
For all the attention paid to Abbas’s statehood initiative this month at the U.N. General Assembly, it seems truly irrelevant now. And once again, this is confirmation of the fact that events on the ground determine what’s up and down in Israel and Palestine. And Hamas is getting all the attention. Within the last month, the Qatari emir traveled to Gaza bearing gifts and cash, the Egyptian prime minister visited, and an Arab League delegation is planning to arrive soon. Turkey’s foreign minister is also talking about a visit of his own.
So where does all of this go? The Middle East is notorious for rapid reversals of fortunes. Hamas is hardly 10 feet tall and a master of strategic planning. It can no more liberate Palestine or turn Gaza into Singapore than Abbas could. And maybe the Israelis will succeed in delivering it a significant blow in the coming days. You have to believe that Abbas hopes so and is feeding them targeting info.
And since so many people have a stake in the idea of the two-state solution, Abbas will continue to play a key role. It would be nice to imagine that somehow, in some way, Fatah and Hamas would unify — with Abbas in the driver’s seat — producing a national movement that had one gun and one negotiating position, instead of a dysfunctional polity that resembles Noah’s Ark, with two of everything. And it is a wonderful thought that the so-called Islamist centrists would lean on Hamas to do precisely that.
But this isn’t some parallel universe of truth, brotherhood, and light that offers up clear and decisive Hollywood endings. It’s the muddle of the Middle East, where risk-aversion and the need to keep all your options open all too often substitutes for bold, clear-headed thinking — guaranteeing gray rather than black and white outcomes.
Hamas and Fatah will survive, even as they both remain dysfunctional and divided. Both serve a perverse purpose — keeping resistance and diplomacy alive, respectively, but not effectively enough to gain statehood. Israel will continue to play its own unhelpful role in this enterprise. And for the time being neither Palestinian movement is likely to give the Israelis any reason to change their minds.
The conundrum is crystal clear: Hamas won’t make peace with Israel, and Abbas can’t. The way forward is much less so.