Hamas’s sudden pragmatism is a mixed blessing for Abbas

The PA president is set to meet Trump to rally his support for two states, and will have to stall before embracing compromise with a group that has vowed to destroy Israel

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Hamas and Fatah leaders meeting in Gaza for talks on Palestinian reconciliation on April 22, 2014. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Hamas and Fatah leaders meeting in Gaza for talks on Palestinian reconciliation on April 22, 2014. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Hamas’s dramatic announcement Sunday morning that it would dismantle its government in the Gaza Strip is especially significant as it comes days before Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is due to meet US President Donald Trump and address the United Nations.

Hamas’s establishment in May of an “administrative committee” to run the Gaza Strip in place of Abbas’s Ramallah government led the Palestinian Authority to slash funding to the coastal enclave, sparking the most severe power crisis the Strip has ever known.

Even if one takes a cynical, skeptical view of Hamas’s commitment to dismantling the administrative committee — and indeed, it emphatically does not actually herald the end of the terror group or its departure from the Strip — it is still a major concession.

For many months now, Hamas has said that it will only dismantle the administrative committee once the Palestinian Authority ends its punishing financial sanctions against the Strip, including the drastic cut to Gaza electricity subsidies. Now, with no preconditions, Hamas has changed its approach and announced that it will dismantle the body, which was the main catalyst of the recent escalation in the crisis between the two sides.

Furthermore, Hamas’s announcement, made by its delegation in Cairo, said the organization is prepared to hold general elections at the earliest opportunity, to conduct negotiations with Abbas and his Fatah movement, and to form a national unity government.

Yahya Sinwar (R), the new leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and senior Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh attend the funeral of Hamas official Mazen Faqha in Gaza City on March 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

On the face of it, Hamas has caved in to all of Abbas’s demands, and the timing could hardly be more significant.

A Hamas delegation featuring the group’s leader Ismail Haniyeh, and its Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar, has been in Cairo since early last week for talks with the Egyptian intelligence agencies about Palestinian unity. On Friday, a Fatah delegation, led by senior official Azzam al-Ahmad, arrived in Cairo for talks with the Egyptians mediating between the sides.

The main problem with the timing from Fatah’s point of view is that in three days, Abbas is due to meet with Trump on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

One can only imagine how Abbas’s meeting with the United States president will be perceived if he will have just agreed to form a national unity government with a terror group, and especially if he speaks about reconciliation with Hamas in his UN address.

Abbas will want answers from Trump about his administration’s as-yet-unstated commitment to a two-state solution. It would be odd for Abbas to talk up a Palestinian state after agreeing to share power with a group that calls for the destruction of Israel.

Thus, it is likely that for the next week at least, Fatah will try to draw out any negotiations with Hamas to avoid reaching an agreement immediately, if only to allow the meeting with Trump to go smoothly.

The recent major push for unity isn’t the first in the decade since Hamas seized power in Gaza in a violent coup. Invariably, the agreements fell apart when it came to the nitty-gritty issues.

In any agreement between Fatah and Hamas, the devil is in the details. Who would, in practice, run Gaza? What would happen to the Hamas security forces and the border crossings? These are only a few of the many major questions that remain to be answered.

Still, it is important to reiterate that the Hamas leadership today, with Haniyeh and Sinwar, differs fundamentally from that of their predecessor Khaled Mashaal.

Sinwar has already proved more than once that ascending to power fundamentally shifts one’s perspective and priorities.

Exiled former senior Fatah member Mohammed Dahlan attends a Palestinian legislative Council meeting in Gaza City through video conference from the United Arab Emirates on July 27, 2017 following developments at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

He has thus far been a pragmatic leader, thoughtful in his moves and extremely cautious, in a departure from his past reputation as a hardliner.

Sinwar has drawn close to Fatah’s former Gaza strongman Mohammad Dahlan, who hates Hamas, and he has agreed to take dramatic steps to appease Egypt, including arresting members of Islamic State and putting an end to the cross-border smuggling.

Haniyeh, meanwhile, is carrying on with the same policies he followed during the many years he led Hamas in the Strip. He was appointed to head the group’s political bureau a few months ago as a man of the people, and thus represents the people to a large extent.

He demonstrated that tendency during the 2014 war with Israel, when he went against the political bureau in pressuring for a ceasefire, and he is taking the same approach now. Haniyeh understands that, with little hope on the horizon, the severe economic crisis in Gaza can end in one of two ways: war with Israel, which could decimate the movement’s leadership and turn the population against it, or a “Gaza Spring” that would have similar results.

The best he can do under the circumstances is compromise, even if others say he caved in.

Most Popular
read more: