May 8, 2017 - Palestinians: Abbas meets with Trump; Hamas “moderates”, and elects new leader

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses the significance of Abbas's meeting with Trump, the election of Hamas's new leader, and Hamas's new "Document of General Principles and Policies"; the importance of these developments from Israel's standpoint; and the connection between the new document and the election of Ismail Haniyeh.

 

Q. Last week witnessed three long-anticipated Palestinian political developments. PLO/PA leader Abbas met with Trump, Hamas elected a new leader, and Hamas issued a new “Document of General Principles and Policies”. Which is the most significant development?

A. Almost certainly the new Hamas document. It constitutes a fascinating attempt by Hamas to adapt to changing regional circumstances. Not Israeli circumstances: the document does not recognize Israel in any shape or form and does not offer to negotiate with Israel. Rather, it is directed at West Bank Palestinians and Arabs elsewhere.

The Document of General Principles seeks to transform Hamas’s orientation from Islamist to national political. It wants to render Hamas more acceptable to the Sunni Arab states fighting Islamist ISIS, beginning with Egypt, Gaza’s neighbor. It never even mentions the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s parent movement and the arch-enemy of the regime in Egypt. It seeks to make Hamas more acceptable to West Bank Palestinians, too, looking to the day when Mahmoud Abbas no longer heads the PLO and the Palestinian Authority.

The new policy document also reflects Hamas’s Gaza dilemma. The Strip is isolated and getting poorer by the day. A full-fledged economic and humanitarian crisis is approaching. Hamas needs all the help it can get from the Sunni Arab world. It wants to present a friendlier face.

Finally, by allowing that Hamas will not oppose the creation of a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines (“lines”, not “borders”, which would imply full-fledged legitimacy) and asserting that it opposes Zionism but not Judaism, Hamas seeks to distance itself from its infamous charter of 1988. The shockingly anti-Semitic charter adopts the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and blames Jews for both world wars.

Yet the new document does not pretend to annul or replace the charter. It continues to reject Israel’s existence, endorse violence against it, insist on the right of return to Israel of all five million or so 1948 refugees and their great-grandchildren, and call for the liberation of Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Hamas wants to live in both worlds: fanatical Islam on the one hand, and a Middle East of growing Arab-Israeli strategic cooperation on the other. It hopes its new “music” will somehow drown out the old, but without replacing it.

Make no mistake. Hamas, according to the new document, still holds that “Palestine is the land of the Arab Palestinian people” and Zionism is “a racist, anti-human and colonial” project. It declares null and void the Balfour Declaration and the UN partition resolution of 1947, the two foundations under international law of both Israel and a Palestinian state. It rejects the Oslo accords and security cooperation. It assumes an idyllic past in which Jews never suffered from persecution under Islam: “the Jewish problem, anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Jews are phenomena fundamentally linked to European history.” (An extremist European Hamas supporter must have contributed the “Jewish problem” phrase, which I have never encountered in Arab discourse).

 

Q. So from Israel’s standpoint, is anything important happening here?

A. An optimist would suggest that conceivably Hamas is moving, however tentatively, in a direction similar to the path Fateh has followed. Back in 1974 Fateh, the mainstay of the PLO, adopted a series of increasingly moderate positions that ultimately brought it to the Oslo talks and a long-term dialogue with Israel. At the time, Fateh would couch new concessions regarding, say, the idea of a state within the 1967 lines rather than in all of Palestine, as a “strategy of stages”: first we’ll take the West Bank and Gaza, then we’ll worry about the rest. Ultimately that strategy too was softened in favor of a two-state solution.

Conceivably, in retrospect we will look back and recognize that Hamas’s acceptance in 1994 of the notion of a long-term hudna or ceasefire with Israel was the first stage in its own strategy of stages and that this document constitutes another stage. Yet at this rate--a step toward reality every 25 years or so--we can wait a century until Hamas is really ready for productive coexistence with Israel. Besides, Fateh still adheres to peace process demands like the right of return and positions like “there never was a temple on the Temple Mount” that continue to contribute to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse in negotiations.

 

Q. And the election of Ismail Haniyeh to replace Khaled Meshaal as head of Hamas’s Politburo? How does this link up with the new document?

A. Without doubt there is a connection. Haniyeh is Gazan and all the positions he has filled until now have been in the Gaza Strip. Gaza will continue to be his base. Meshaal hails originally from the West Bank, grew up in Kuwait and in recent years has lived in Qatar. The new document is Gazan in its spirit, focusing on Palestinian national politics rather than Islamist ideology and reflecting Hamas’s aspiration to take over, from its base in Gaza, the West Bank as well.

Throughout his career, Haniyeh has been identified with relatively (by Hamas’s standards) moderate positions like hudna and acquiescing without peace in the 1967 borders. The new Hamas document constitutes Haniyeh’s marching orders. From herein it will be interesting to see if the document’s impact is evident in Haniyeh’s diplomatic activities, for example in improving relations with Egypt and restoring PLO cash transfers to the Strip.

Yet lest we forget, Haniyeh is now no longer head of Hamas in the Gaza Strip itself. That distinction falls to Yahya Sinwar, a terrorist released by Israel in the Gilad Shalit exchange of 2011. By all indications, the militant Sinwar is not inclined to advance the Palestinian cause through any means other than attacking Israelis.

 

Q. The Abbas-Trump meeting wasn’t significant?

A. It’s impossible to say at this point in time. Few details are known regarding the four hours of US-PLO conversations that took place on the occasion of Abbas’s visit to the White House. For all we know, most of the time was spent educating President Trump about the conflict in anticipation of his May 22-23 visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah (and, according to some reports, to the dramatic setting of Masada for a public speech as well).

Based on the public remarks made on the occasion of the Abbas visit to Washington, we have heard a Trump commitment not to try to impose a solution. Trump also avoided specifically mentioning a two-state solution, a regional conference as a framework for a peace process or any other detailed plans or ideas. In other words, Trump offered no substance at all. In public, he even avoided chastising Abbas over PLO/PA payments to convicted terrorists and their families; reportedly he did so in private. Abbas, in his public remarks, broke no new ground.

But Trump made a number of remarks on the occasion of the visit that, to this observer, seemed ill-advised. For one, in offering the Palestinians economic aid and incentives, he implied that this would improve the atmosphere for peace. This is the old “economic peace” equation that has never worked: Palestinian violence against Jews had consistently broken out at times of relative prosperity, going all the way back to the Arab Revolt against the British Mandate in 1936 and continuing in two intifadas. It is not a mistake to contribute to Palestinian prosperity and quality of life. It is a mistake to patronizingly link this to peace and to allow economic development aid to delay a political process until Palestinians are more prosperous, hence somehow more forthcoming.

Then too, it is not helpful when Trump speaks in optimistic superlatives--“we will get it done”, “I think there’s a very very good chance”-- about how easy a peace deal will be. He doesn’t need Palestinians’ votes. Rather, whipped-up optimism for a peace process that will almost certainly fail inevitably breeds anger and frustration after the collapse and can end up in violence. Examples are Camp David 2000 followed by the second intifada, and the Kerry peace mission of 2013-14 which ended up in yet another round of fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Third, Trump praised Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation in the West Bank. As the saying goes, Abbas needs this praise like a hole in the head. Yes, the security cooperation is positive and important. But no, Abbas does not want to be portrayed in Washington as--in the eyes of many Palestinians--a collaborator with Israel.

At a luncheon in Washington with Abbas, Secretary of State Tillerson stated that there exist positive conditions for advancing peace between Israel and the Palestinians. I wish he would tell us what they are. Perhaps he means the alleged readiness of moderate Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia (Trump’s first stop later this month) to contribute to a new peace process. If so, he should beware: the Arabs will not force Abbas to make concessions and Abbas is in no position, politically at home and vis-à-vis Hamas, to concede key Palestinian positions like the right of return, a capital in Jerusalem and the 1967 lines with equal swaps.

Abbas certainly can’t stop paying stipends to convicted Palestinian terrorists and their families. Like it or not, these are Palestine’s national heroes. To stop supporting them would be suicide.

 

Q. Where in your view does Netanyahu stand regarding all these developments?

A. Netanyahu’s greatest concern is to avoid having to confront demands by Trump that oblige him to make significant concessions or even far-reaching gestures to the Palestinians and that could, consequently, disrupt Netanyahu’s right-settler coalition. He will grab at “economic peace” gestures if they enable him to avoid any more substantive commitment. Netanyahu’s version of a peace process involves concessions the Palestinians cannot possibly make. He prefers no process.

Like the rest of us, Netanyahu probably does not have a clue regarding either the content of Trump’s message to Israel on May 22 or whether Trump’s words should be taken seriously. Presumably, Trump does not know either. This is unsettling, to say the least.

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