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Jul 26, 2012 | 10:15 GMT

8 mins read

Hamas and Israel Amid Regional Turmoil

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Rabat, Morocco, on July 14
(ABDELHAK SENNA/AFP/GettyImages)

Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas in Gaza, traveled to Cairo on July 25 to meet with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. The previous day, Hamas' central leader Khaled Meshaal met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara.

The unrest in Syria is shaking up the Middle East in a way that the 2011 Arab protests had not. The situation in Syria has Israel concerned, given how Iran and its allies will react to the collapse of the Tehran-allied regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. The regional turmoil is giving Hamas more room to maneuver in the Middle East and limiting Israel's options as it tries to stifle the Islamist movement's growth. 

The Israelis have wanted to see the Syrian regime crumble and thus weaken Tehran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. But they are also concerned that the Shia Islamist-led regional bloc, which includes Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria's Alawite-led minorities, could give way to one dominated by Sunni Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

It probably will be a while before Sunnis become empowered in Syria, but the Muslim Brotherhood has already made significant gains in two other states of great strategic importance to Israel: Egypt and Jordan (both of which have peace treaties with Israel). In Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood — the world's oldest and largest Islamist movement — has become a center of power second only to Egypt's military establishment. In Amman, King Abdullah II has begun trying to persuade Jordan's branch of the Muslim Brotherhood to end a boycott of the electoral process, which the Hashemite monarchy needs in order to maintain stability in the wake of the Arab unrest.

Hamas' Rising Fortunes

These developments in Egypt and Jordan, along with the regime collapse under way in Damascus, have significantly strengthened Israel's main Palestinian adversary, Hamas. The Syrian regime's crackdown on a popular Sunni-led uprising forced Hamas to distance itself from the Iranian-Syrian alliance — a move that secured its re-entry into the mainstream Arab fold. The exiled Hamas central politburo left Damascus for different capitals in the region, with Qatar becoming the Palestinian Islamist movement's principal regional patron. Working with Hamas serves Qatar's security interests and furthers its ambitions to become a regional player.

Hamas derived a great deal of geopolitical clout from its enhanced relations with the Qatari emirate and particularly from a rapprochement with Jordan, which served as Hamas headquarters before the group's central leadership was forced to relocate to the Syrian capital. Qatar has been facilitating the renewal of ties between Amman and Hamas.

Meshaal, a Jordanian citizen, visited Jordan in January 2012 for the first time since his 1999 expulsion. He visited again in late June. He met the Jordanian monarch during both visits, and during their second meeting the Jordanian king asked Meshaal to mediate talks between the monarchy and the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. Meshaal's initial efforts in this regard have not produced the desired results — Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood is maintaining its electoral boycott — but these talks were never expected to end quickly.

Hamas has two motivations for sorting things out between the palace and the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. Doing so would enhance the power of the Palestinian group's Jordanian counterpart and also would raise its esteem in the eyes of the monarchy. Hamas could then use its improved ties with Jordan to try to revive itself in the West Bank, where its activities have declined since 2007 because of a power struggle with its secular rival Fatah, which rules the territory.

The growing frustration in the West Bank with the Palestinian National Authority because of financial problems and the difficulties the government has had in paying salaries creates an opportunity for Hamas. Fearful of this, the Israelis gave the Palestinian National Authority $44 million, and the Saudis have promised $100 million. But while Fatah struggles, Hamas is getting money and fuel from Qatar and will be trying to build support in the Fatah-ruled territory. However, a Hamas revival in the West Bank would face many challenges and thus be a long-term project.

In the immediate term, Hamas hopes that the Muslim Brotherhood's rise to the Egyptian presidency will allow the Palestinian movement greater room to maneuver in its home turf, Gaza.

Although the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's authority remains heavily circumscribed by the ruling military council, Hamas wants to secure some easing of the blockade against Gaza and gradually gain greater international recognition.

Finally, Hamas seeks to benefit from the empowerment of Syria's Sunni community in a post-al Assad Damascus. Hamas maintains numerous links to Syria's state and society and hopes to see the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (organizationally dormant since the early 1980s but with a significant latent social presence) play a key role in Syria after the current regime falls. This would give Hamas a robust presence in all three of Israel's major Arab neighbors.

The Challenge for Israel

The shifts in the geopolitical situation in Israel's immediate surroundings, while not an immediate threat, are a major predicament for the Israelis. For decades, Israel's national security strategy has relied on the stability of the autocratic Arab regimes in Egypt, Syria and Jordan, which maintain strong police states but are unable to project effective power beyond their borders. Israel also has benefited from the Arab states' being at odds with one another.

Most of these factors will not change anytime soon. In fact, the transitions (to varying degrees) in all three countries will keep these states from threatening Israel for many years. That said, the relative and ongoing democratization of the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian political systems could eventually allow for the rise of actors that are hostile to Israel and force the regimes to alter their behavior as well.

Hamas is the clear beneficiary of this process. Israel thus needs to find a way to counter this trend. However, its options remain limited. Israel can rely on U.S.-led international (and Saudi-led regional) efforts and the Egyptian military's power in Cairo to contain the rise of Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamism. But Turkey wants Muslim Brotherhood-type Islamists to be empowered. The Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey are close, and the Islamists need Ankara as a regional patron, so that their rise would enhance Turkey's regional clout in the aftermath of the Arab unrest.

Israel does have some options in terms of focusing on the Palestinian Territories in order to keep Hamas in check. A key part of this is Hamas' main rival, Fatah. However, using Fatah against Hamas could be problematic. First, Fatah has been declining for many years because of an archaic leadership running a political establishment with a reputation for corruption. Fatah is seen as having lost Gaza to Hamas and as failing to deliver municipal-level governance in the West Bank. Second, despite running the internationally recognized Palestinian National Authority since 1996 and holding negotiations with Israel, Fatah has not been able to make any progress toward Palestinian statehood.

Finally, Fatah represents the Palestinian counterpart (though on a sub-national level) to the secular Arab regimes crumbling in the wake of popular unrest while the regional counterparts of Hamas are on the rise. This makes it even harder for Fatah to revive negotiations with Israel, which have been stalled for nearly two years, especially when the current Israeli government dominated by right-wing political forces cannot compromise on the issue of settlements.

Israel launched a fresh initiative in May, when the centrist Kadima Party joined the Likud-led coalition government and Kadima chief Shaul Mofaz was given the post of deputy prime minister and the Palestinian portfolio. The settlements issue and internal dissent from within Fatah prevented a July 1 meeting between Mofaz and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas from taking place. Furthermore, Kadima's sudden departure from the Israeli Cabinet last week has further offset the possibility of the resumption of talks.

These conditions are an obstacle to Fatah emerging as a strong counter to Hamas. Fatah's weakness is one of the key reasons why the intra-Palestinian negotiations on a new power-sharing arrangement remain stalled. If and when the Palestinians can agree on fresh elections, Hamas could make gains.

Thus, Fatah does not offer Israel much leverage. What does give the Israelis some strength is Hamas' international status: The movement remains a terrorist entity in the eyes of the United States because of Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist as a sovereign state. This situation probably will not change soon and will prevent Hamas from gaining ground in the international arena.

As long as this situation continues, the regional players are unlikely to give the Palestinian Islamists too much space in which to operate. But ultimately, Israel cannot be comfortable with this, especially while Islamist movements gain ground in neighboring Arab countries. A key development to watch will be how Israel deals with Hamas' main regional counterpart, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which now holds the Egyptian presidency. Meanwhile, Israel will focus on bolstering its physical defenses in order to adjust to the shifting geopolitical situation in the region.

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