Leverage for Abbas

The Palestinian government that Hamas is going to form as a result of its victory in recent parliamentary elections is heavily dependent on international aid. As such, the international community could have great influence on how events from here are going to develop.

So far, and while it has to be said that the international community has taken different approaches to dealing with the Palestinian situation, including the internal power struggle between Fateh and Hamas, Israel and the US in particular have been unhelpful.

Throughout last year, the US and Israel consistently avoided empowering the Palestinian leadership, particularly President Mahmoud Abbas, by refusing to engage in a political process with the Palestinian Authority. That in turn has proven very helpful to Hamas.

There are now two possible strategies available to the international community to deal with the next Palestinian government. One is to try to undermine a Hamas-led government in an attempt to bring it down and empower the Palestinian political opposition. The other strategy is to use a carrot-and-stick approach to gradually moderate Hamas’ positions.

The international community and the Palestinian opposition share two concerns regarding Hamas’ newfound political dominance: whether Hamas will continue its violent strategy against Israel, especially against Israeli civilians inside Israel, and over the political position and attitude of Hamas vis-a-vis Israel, signed agreements with Israel and the relevant resolutions of the United Nations, especially the roadmap. But Palestinians have an additional concern, namely the Islamic movement’s social agenda.

Whichever strategy the international community decides on, it is important to understand that while the world has strong leverage, its policies can be a double-edged sword. If a concerted international effort to undermine a Hamas-led government is pursued, the result might simply be greater public sympathy for Hamas in Palestine as well as in other Arab countries. This might allow Hamas room for maneuver: by giving concessions on security to Israel and on political positions it can buy time to consolidate its social and ideological bases in Palestine.

The international community thus has to tread carefully, and one of the early features of the strategy of the international community that already appears in the language used so far is the differentiation stipulated between Hamas on the one hand and the Palestinian government on the other. This might be a signal that the international community will deal with a non-Hamas government that will continue with the same positions and attitudes of the current Palestinian government, and at the same time spare Hamas the pressure it is likely to come under should the movement form a government composed totally or even partially of Hamas members.

The possible stalemate resulting from the conflict between the threats of the outside world not to deal with a Hamas government and the instinct of Hamas to cash in on its victory by forming such a government might in turn give a certain amount of leverage to President Abbas. Abbas could use this leverage to convince Hamas to allow him, in consultation with the movement, to select a government that can survive internally and at the same time be acceptable to the international community as a representation of the will of the president and consistent with his government policies.

That should be possible because the political representation of the Palestinian people, within the internal Palestinian division of labor, falls to the PLO of which Abu Mazen is head, rather than the government that the Hamas majority in parliament is supposed to give a vote of confidence to.