Open Zion

04.23.12

Hamas Still Not Ready for Prime Time

In a wide-ranging interview with the Jewish Daily Forward, Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzook again demonstrated the difficult position in which his organization finds itself. Due to the Arab uprisings, the region’s strategic landscape is now primarily defined by sectarian allegiances. As a result, Hamas's external leadership is trying to reintegrate the organization into the mainstream Sunni Arab fold, cultivating closer ties with states like Qatar, Jordan and Egypt, while distancing itself from Iran and abandoning Syria altogether.

The leadership in exile, including Abu Marzook, therefore finds itself at odds with much of the Gaza-based leadership, which does not have the same urgent need to find either new headquarters and patrons or a new regional brand and identity. Their rule in Gaza is uncontested. They have income from smuggling, and through efforts by Gaza-based Hamas leaders like Mahmoud Zahar and Ismail Hanniyeh, they maintain relationships, and at least some funding from, Iran. So, they see much less need to make radical changes.

Reaching out to a major American Jewish publication to explain his thinking serves many functions for Abu Marzook. His carefully calibrated and mixed message walks the tightrope the external leadership now has to traverse: adopt positions the Arab states can tolerate; align more closely with in the policies of other Muslim Brotherhood parties, especially Egypt’s; and help to create a softer image in the West and Israel, without abandoning the organization's core principles.

For many years Abu Marzook has been eclipsed by his former deputy, Khaled Mishaal. But the current crisis has produced a complex power struggle within Hamas, both inside and outside Gaza. This interview may also have been part of an effort to position himself as a compromise figure between Mishaal and more hard-line leaders.

The external leadership of Hamas knows it has to pay a price for adapting to the new regional realities, but it wishes to keep this to a minimum. Hamas leaders want to avoid being perceived by other Palestinians as adopting policies towards Israel indistinguishable in practice from the mainstream national leadership in Ramallah—especially the goal of a two-state solution. If it openly accepted that this was its strategy for national liberation, Hamas would then have to compete with Fatah largely on the basis of religious and social conservatism. But its social and religious agenda in Gaza, the most conservative part of Palestinian society, has not proved popular. If Hamas is to retain a competitive political advantage over Fatah, it must be by outbidding them on Israel.

Abu Marzook was careful not to cede too much. He insisted that the most Hamas could accept is a long-term truce (“hudna"), but not peace, with Israel; that it would not be bound by any agreements made by the PLO (the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people); and that Hamas would not recognize Israel.

On this last point, he hedged in a manner indicative of the need to placate both Western and Arab governments committed to a two-state outcome, and those parts of his own constituency unalterably opposed to it. He cagily noted, “Maybe my answer right now [about recognizing Israel] is completely different to my answer after 10 years.” This can be read as leaving the door open for an evolution towards recognition of Israel, or as leaving the door open for a resumption of armed struggle and a cancellation of the truce. The Forward emphasized, “Abu Marzook was at pains to knock down suggestions... [that] Hamas is preparing to abandon armed resistance against Israel…”

Suffice it to say, the Abu Marzook interview was not reassuring. Hamas is in crisis, and it's trying to adapt. Still, even its external leaders, as they are trying to project a softer image, in fact are still clinging to a hard line that rejects the conditions laid out by the Middle East Quartet—the US, the EU, the UN and Russia—for it to be recognized as a legitimate political actor: renunciation of violence; recognition of Israel's right to exist; and acceptance of the validity of existing Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

From the point of view of the Palestinian national interest, Hamas is still part of the problem, not part of the solution. Its fundamental positions, even in theory, are strictly dysfunctional with regard to the international community. They cannot serve as the basis of serious negotiations with Israel. And they are out of sync with the consensus of the Arab world, as reflected in the Arab Peace Initiative and the policies of most Arab governments.

Abu Marzook's interview demonstrates that as far as Palestinian national leadership is concerned, Hamas is still very much not ready for prime time, and neither is he.