The evolving facts of life

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A brief perusal of headlines in the regional media would appear to confirm that, of the two main Palestinian movements, Fateh and Hamas, the latter has recently been the object of the most attention from Israel’s neighbors, particularly Egypt and Jordan.

To be sure, Palestinian Authority/Fateh leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) periodically makes the rounds of regional capitals to update leaders about the peace process with Israel. And in Cairo, Riyadh, Doha and Sanaa he discusses possible mediation for renewed unity talks with Hamas. No one refuses to see him and he is treated with respect. But then nothing happens.

On the other hand, Jordan recently renewed its relations with Hamas after nearly a decade of alienation and despite its charges of out-and-out sedition against Hamas two years ago. And Egypt persists in mediating first ceasefire and then prisoner-exchange talks between Hamas and Israel. One is left with the impression that Arab recognition of PLO leadership of the Palestinian people is increasingly pro-forma and ritualistic.

The Arab world appears to accept that Hamas is here to stay in Gaza and, at least as a political actor, in the West Bank as well. Hamas’ relative success in enforcing the current ceasefire or "tahdiya" has helped persuade the Arabs that it can "deliver" on more than terrorism. Its recent pledge to Jordan to avoid meddling in internal state affairs, particularly in coordination with the local Muslim Brotherhood, and to refrain from planning terrorist operations from Jordan against Israel, is seen as at least temporarily credible.

Yet Jordan and Egypt’s readiness to deal with Hamas does not, or at least not yet, reflect a major shift. At the strategic level, both Arab states remain committed to a two-state solution, i.e., to Fateh’s approach, not that of Hamas. Jordan is training West Bank security forces loyal to the PLO/PA. Were either Jordan or Egypt or both to commit forces to deploy in the West Bank or Gaza as part of a new conflict-mitigation effort, their orientation would be pro-Fateh and anti-Hamas. And both Jordan and Egypt remain highly suspicious of, if not openly hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood that, in Egypt, spawned the Palestinian Hamas and in both countries threatens regime stability.

Still, the evolving facts of life in Palestine are undeniably antithetical to this strategic approach. Jordan’s rapprochement with Hamas, in particular, appears to reflect an assessment that the Annapolis process has failed. The Bush, Olmert and possibly Abbas governments are nearing their end, Bush’s Middle East ventures are widely deemed a failure and there is little if any prospect of a serious Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the coming 6-12 months. Hence King Abdullah–the leader of a small country surrounded by strong and often conflicted neighbors–has understandably chosen to cover all possible options. He has done so, incidentally, not only regarding Palestine but also, judging by his recent diplomatic schedule (visits to Baghdad and Russia, his foreign minister’s visit to Tehran, attempts to improve relations with Syria), concerning strategic developments in the greater Middle East: the emergence of a Shi’ite-led Iraq, the strengthening of anti-American interests in the region and a Russian resurgence.

Interestingly, in the months ahead we in Israel can expect of Cairo and Amman quite different dividends from their growing ties with Hamas. Because Egyptian Sinai borders directly on Hamas-ruled Gaza, Cairo is likely to deliver more of the same: increasingly tough monitoring of the Sinai-Gaza border and mediation between Hamas and Israel over a prisoner exchange. Hamas is understandably less than enthusiastic about Egypt’s refusal to open the Rafah crossing unconditionally and has hinted at a preference for an alternative prisoner-exchange mediator like Germany. But because Israel remains firmly behind Egypt’s efforts, little is likely to change here; nor does a prisoner exchange appear likely in the near future.

Jordan, on the other hand, does not share a border with Hamas (until and unless the Palestinian Islamist movement takes over the West Bank–a prospect both Amman and Jerusalem are likely to oppose vehemently). Nor can Jordan compete with Egypt in terms of wielding inter-Arab clout vis-a-vis Hamas. But one initiative we might gradually become aware of in the months ahead is a Jordanian effort to seat Israeli and Hamas intellectuals and public figures together in quiet informal talks.

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