By Daoud Kuttab
AMMAN: Palestinian reconciliation took a major step forward recently following an agreement that included President Mahmoud Abbas taking on the additional position of prime minister.
The Doha Agreement between leader of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, and Abbas that was signed earlier this month has led many to ask: has Hamas capitulated to the demands of Fatah? Were Qatari financial incentives a reason for this sudden breakthrough?
What could have led Meshal to sign a deal that would publically set him against Hamas leaders in the Gaza strip, such as Mahmoud Al-Zahar, who accused him of signing it without their knowledge?
Certainly geopolitical developments following the Arab Spring played a role. In recent months, Hamas (especially its Damascus-based leadership headed by Meshaal) has been distancing itself from the Syrian government. The violence of the Bashar Al-Assad regime against Muslim Brotherhood activists in Syria has forced Meshaal and colleagues to seek alternative residency. Since leaving Damascus he has visited Jordan where he might re-establish residency. Meshaal’s deputy, Abu Marzouk, recently moved to Egypt.
While Hamas is losing Syria as its headquarters they can still count on the Islamic political movements in different countries, like Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, as well as a possible post-Bashar Syria. This change, however, is a mixed bag. While Hamas will probably have more friends in the post-Arab Spring Middle East and in the Gulf, it is understood that in return they will have to scale down their relationship with Iran and lessen their radical positions in order to keep their new friends happy.
In fact, Hamas has been softening its position for some time. In public statements, Meshaal announced that his movement is no longer going to try to liberate the West Bank and Gaza through violent means but through a nonviolent (popular) struggle.
Leaders in Gaza are now concerned that the reconciliation deal means they will lose the power that their control over the Gaza strip has provided in the past five years.
But regional and political developments are not solely responsible for the Hamas-Fatah deal in Doha. Funding considerations are also likely to have played a role. According to reports quoting diplomatic sources, the refusal of Hamas to support the Syrian regime has resulted in a loss of substantial funding from Syria’s Iranian allies. Without Iranian funding, running the Gaza Strip has become much more difficult financially, and would contribute to the further deterioration of Hamas’ public standing.
Funding for the Ramallah-based Palestinian government has also been drying up of late. After the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership decided to seek recognition for a Palestinian State in the UN, funding from the United States and other Western countries has decreased, leaving Arab funding as the only substantial alternative. It was no coincidence that Arab foreign ministers meeting within the Arab League last week pledged to provide the Palestinian Authority with an estimated $100 million a month. But it is unlikely that even a fraction of it will actually be transferred to the PA if the reconciliation is not carried out.
For these reasons, the latest agreement in Doha is taken more seriously by all parties involved. For months, negotiators representing both sides had been deadlocked about who will be the interim prime minister until the elections scheduled for later this year. Fatah publicly insisted on Salam Fayyad, but the Islamic parties did not want him because they see Fayyad, a former World Bank official, as being too close to the Western countries considered instrumental in legitimizing Israel’s boycott of the Hamas-led government in Gaza.
But if Hamas didn’t want Fayyad, who is not a member of Fatah, why then did they agree to Abbas — who is the leader of Fatah? In fact, according to a report from Doha, the name of Abbas was suggested by the Hamas leader himself.
Apparently Abbas was the best compromise choice. His repeated statements that he will not run in any future elections have given him added credibility. Abbas is also considered a man of his word and he is the one who oversaw free and fair elections in 2006 that brought Hamas into power.
The reconciliation with Fatah has certainly improved Hamas’s global standing, even if at the expense of internal divisions within the movement itself. The mutual choice of Mahmoud Abbas, along with the signs that Hamas is softening its political position vis-à-vis Israel, strongly suggest that this time, the chances of Palestinian unity are better than they have been in the past.
Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Follow him at Twitter.com/daoudkuttab. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews), www.commongroundnews.org.