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Briefing
June 13, 2012

On Both Sides Now

What if the Muslim Brotherhood Wins Elections in Palestine and Jordan?

by
Samer Libdeh

Executive Summary

•   Important legislative elections expected this year in Jordan and in the Palestinian Territories are likely to increase the power and influence of Hamas and the Jordanian Islamic Action Front (IAF).

•   In the longer term, the growing influence of both Hamas and the IAF is likely to lead to a significant change in the relationship between Jordan and the West Bank.

•   Greater co-operation between Hamas and the IAF is likely to cause some concern amongst Trans-Jordanians, the Royal Court and Jerusalem.

•   Last week, various Palestinian parties (including Fatah and Hamas) agreed terms upon which the various Palestinian groups, including Hamas, may ultimately join the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO).

•   Closer ties (or a political unity) between Hamas and the IAF could in the longer term provide a practical solution for the Palestinian refugee issue.

•   The difficult economic environment in Jordan and the Palestinian Territories means foreign aid and foreign direct investment will continue to be important for the Jordanian and Palestinian economy.

•   Foreign aid and investment will continue to give London and Washington political leverage in Jordan and the Palestinian Territories.

•   London and Washington should continue to support the activities of civil society actors to develop an active and effective citizenry based on liberal values.

Introduction

The relationship between the Islamist parties, Hamas based in the Palestinian Territories and the Muslim Brotherhood based in Jordan — politically represented by the Islamic Action Front (IAF) — has been a controversial issue both in Jordan and in the Palestinian Territories ever since the occupation of the West Bank in 1967 and the subsequent ‘Disengagement Decision’ of the late King Hussein of Jordan in 1988. The decision redrew the ‘electoral map’ of Jordan to exclude West Bank representation in the Jordanian Parliament and resulted in the severance of all formal/official political, administrative and legal ties with the occupied West Bank. This is in large part due to the fact that both groups maintain a political approach that is inconsistent with the stated strategic foreign policy objectives of the King of Jordan, and pose a significant threat to the political authority of the Royal Court. Any unity between the two is also likely to be resisted by Trans-Jordanians (indigenous Jordanians) and other nationalists in the Kingdom, who fear that such an alliance will challenge their political and economic privileged position.

Crucial legislative elections which are scheduled to take place in Jordan and the Palestinian Territories later this year, and recent statements and decisions of the IAF and Hamas are likely to reopen the debate regarding the ties between the Islamist parties.  Whilst the growing bond between the IAF and Hamas is not without its risks, it is a relationship that London, Washington and Jerusalem should foster and encourage since it could provide a practical solution to the protracted issue of the Palestinian right of return, which has long bedeviled the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Whilst Jordan is not a substitute for the West Bank and Gaza, it may provide much needed physical space for Palestinian refugees to be relocated to, in the context of a unity framework with the West Bank.

Closer ties and shared vision

Presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in the Palestinian Territories summer 2012 and, whilst changes to the Palestinian electoral process introduced by President Abbas in 2007 are likely to reduce the prospect of a Hamas takeover of the West Bank, it is widely expected that Hamas will build on its electoral success of 2006. Indeed, Hamas has not only intensified its campaigning efforts in the West Bank, but its overall popularity has received a recent boost due, in large part, to its ‘successful’ management of the prisoners exchange deal with Israel.

That said, the unwelcome efforts by Hamas to Islamise the Gaza Strip (with all the negative implications that this has entailed for women’s rights, minority rights, tolerance of different sexual identities and the general culture of intimidation) has been widely reported in the West Bank and has tempered enthusiasm for Hamas. Nevertheless, its ability and track record in providing practical solutions to day-to-day problems endured by Palestinians, through its elaborate and well-funded social services network (which consists of schools, hospitals, small loans and even businesses) may override any reservations that West Bank Palestinians have about Hamas’ ‘spiritual/ideological‘ platform.  Indeed, events in Egypt and Tunisia have illustrated that, where practical issues such as jobs, health care and education are at stake, the Muslim Brotherhood (of which Hamas is the Palestinian offshoot) has been able to successfully market its model, regardless of concerns among voters regarding its ‘spiritual’ and social agenda. Thus it is possible that, following the scheduled elections in 2012, Hamas may control both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Whilst Hamas is not insensitive to the concerns expressed by the Royal Court regarding its ties with the IAF, which are historical, ideological and religious, and its interference in domestic Jordanian affairs, Hamas has never formally recognised or accepted the 1988 Disengagement Decision and has always considered the separation of the Palestinian people in the East and West Bank as temporary in nature until a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian problem is found. Hamas is actively working with pro-Hamas members of the IAF leadership in Jordan to overturn the previous decision to segregate the IAF and Hamas representation in the Liaison offices of Arab Gulf States, which operate as the main fundraising offices for Hamas and the IAF – since they see the efforts of both groups as coterminous.

Parliamentary elections are also expected to take place in Jordan later this year, according to a recent statement by King Abdullah II. Currently, members of the IAF are non-present in the parliament as they oppose the first-past-the post voting system However a recent proposed amendment to Jordan’s electoral law proposed by the King that will be passed in parliament in the coming few weeks could increase the political influence and clout of the IAF and Jordanian-Palestinians in the legislative assembly and in other political and administrative institutions. Like Hamas, the IAF has never accepted the Disengagement Decision of 1988 and has repeatedly claimed that the decision was unconstitutional as it was never formally ratified through changes to the constitution. The recent election of pro-Hamas Palestinian-Jordanian leaders to the IAF Shura Council could pave the way to closer ties and cooperation between the IAF and Hamas.

Closer cooperation between Hamas and the IAF, coupled with the growing influence of Jordanian-Palestinians in the political affairs of the Kingdom, is likely to be viewed with alarm by Trans-Jordanians and nationalist groups (mainly comprised of retired army officers and their tribal affiliates) who rightly fear the loss of political and economic privilege. Equally, such ties are likely to be unwelcome by the Royal Court, which has recently been at pains to stress that the West Bank is no longer part of Jordan following the Disengagement Decision – not least because unity and greater co-operation between the East and West Bank could pose a significant threat to King Abdullah’s power, authority and legitimacy. And, needless to add, a rapprochement between Islamists in Jordan and Palestine will also be viewed with deep suspicion by Israel and Western governments.

Though it may be difficult for nationalists and the Royal Court to resist the will of the majority of Palestinians living within the Kingdom who are likely to be emboldened by recent political cataclysms in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere. Indeed, further recognition and compromise now may be in the long-term interest of the King – as he could negotiate a compromise that ensures his survival – albeit in a slightly altered form (e.g. possibly as a constitutional monarch).

The King has already put in place safeguards the Jordanian-Palestinian relationship, especially in the realm of security. King Abdullah II recently approved a request by the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas to deploy the Jordanian-based Badr Brigades, which are part of the PLO, under the command of the Jordanian army in the West Bank. This cooperation, consented to by the occupying Israel Defense Forces (IDF), was aimed at helping restore order in the West Bank and is the most significant sign of security reengagement since 1988.

Outlook

Whilst political unity between the East and West Bank is not imminent, the prospect of some form of political cooperation or unity in the future is now more likely than ever. London, Washington and Jerusalem should be concerned about this development and the prospects of a brewing Levantine axis of political conservatism.

Any future cooperation between the two banks could provide a practical solution to the hotly debated issue of the Palestinian right of return, which has been one of the major stumbling blocks in Israeli-Palestinians negotiations. Settlement of some of the four million Palestinian refugees in the East Bank under a unity arrangement with the West Bank may be a more palatable solution both for Israel and also for Hamas, who will ultimately have to persuade its constituency that this is a fair compromise for the Palestinian diaspora currently scattered across the Middle East and elsewhere.

The great difficulty facing Israel is that it is unclear whether Hamas is ready to end its violent campaign against the Jewish State and recognise Israel’s right to exist.  Recent statements by Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, has led to speculation that senior officials in the proscribed terrorist organisation may be moving towards a détente and/or accommodation with Israel. However, such a contingency should be viewed with skepticism given the election of ‘hardliners’ affiliated with the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, to the party’s politburo. Also, any tendency toward moderation has been undermined by the usual incitements of violence and extremist rhetoric from senior Hamas officials. It is perfectly plausible that while Hamas’ overall strategy has remained the same throughout the ‘Arab Spring’ period, its short-term tactics have changed. It is telling that in the most severe bout of fighting between Israeli forces and the so-called Popular Resistance Committees (PRCs) in Gaza, which are comprised of separate jihadist factions and elements, Hamas sought to defuse tensions rather than escalate them. In short, the group may still pine for war, but its leadership realises that it cannot successfully wage one right now.

Further evidence of this tactical shift was on display last week when Hamas, Fatah and other Palestinian parties reached agreement on the criteria for candidates wishing to stand for election to the Palestinian National Council (PNC), which is the legislative body of the PLO.  PNC elections are expected to take place later this year and Hamas’ participation in those elections will ultimately pave the way to its formal membership of the PLO, a membership that it has historically rejected previously. The significance of this development lies in the fact that the PLO is formally recognised by Israel and the international community as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and the PLO has in turn recognised Israeli’s right to exist, but it is unclear whether Hamas has accepted the PLO’s position as a precondition to membership since details of last week’s agreement have not been publicly disclosed. Many suspect that this is simply a ploy by Hamas to enhance its role in the internal political institutions and ultimate push Fatah out. This is likely to leave lingering doubts about Hamas’ and by extension the PLO’s reliability as a partner in peace. It will be more instructive to look at Hamas’ behavior, rather than its rhetoric, in order to understand its current thinking.

Role of the West

Given Jordan’s reliance of western aid, pressure could be brought to bear on King Abdullah II to grant political concessions to independent and liberal Jordanian-Palestinians so that they are more fairly represented in the Legislative Assembly. Moreover,the existing barriers to entry in the bureaucracy and the security and military apparatus could be relaxed to enable Jordanian-Palestinians to progress through the ranks. Last week officials in the British and American embassy met with the IAF to discuss not only coordination on the Syrian front, but recent political reform measures proposed by the King. Whilst such concessions may produce short-term political benefits for King Abdullah II, it is unlikely to satisfy the IAF’s, and even Palestinian-Jordanians,’ long- term aim to achieve parity of treatment with Trans-Jordanians.

Attacks against dissenting voices in the Palestinian Territories and the increased intolerance of minorities in the West Bank and Gaza are dangerous and unwelcome developments. The lack of transparency in Hamas’ strategy further complicates the picture. London and Washington should continue to support the efforts of civil society activists (for example, through financial support of NGOs and local charities) in building an active and effective citizenry, which will also operate as an important check on the decisions of Hamas and the IAF.

However, pressure needs to be brought to bear on the Palestinian leadership. The challenging economic environment in both Jordan and the Palestinian Territories means that foreign aid and investment will continue to play an important role in social and economic development in both countries.This creates an opportunity for Europe and the West to continue to exercise leverage in a post-cooperation environment by linking foreign aid and direct investment to progress on human and civil rights. This is not simply the right thing to do but, from a European and US security perspective, is the sensible thing to do.

Samer Libdeh

About Samer Libdeh

Samer is an expert on the politics of the Middle East and much of his recent work focuses on the Muslim Brotherhood. He has previously worked as a Senior Fellow at the Washington-based Center for Liberty in the Middle East and at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. As a Fulbright Scholar, Samer worked as a Legislative Fellow for U.S. Congressman Joseph Crowledy (D-NY) and as a Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Full profile  |  See all of Samer Libdeh's work