Could the hard-line Palestinian group abandon Damascus for Qatar — and in so doing lay a foundation for a détente with Israel?
The shifting allegiances in this tumultuous era of Arab politics have come to resemble a game of musical chairs. According to an unnamed Hamas official quoted in the Wall Street Journal, the hard-line Palestinian group is seeking to move its political headquarters from Damascus as early as this week. Its reliance on the tottering regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria has left it significantly weakened and in search of a new base for political operations, and Egypt and Qatar have both materialized as possible new bases, according to the official. In the case of the Qatari capital of Doha, that may not necessarily be a bad thing.
It’s still unclear if Hamas will actually make the move. Speaking to the Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar, another Hamas official was quick to dismiss the Wall Street Journal story, claiming that only administrative staff will leave Damascus while the top political figures will stay. But whatever Hamas’s current plans, it’s clear that Assad’s violent crackdown — and the negative reaction from Arab powers — have pressured the group into exploring its options.
The fall of traditional regional power brokers like former Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak and the likely fall of Assad have helped to burnish Qatar’s diplomatic and strategic influence. Qatar took the lead in persuading the Arab League to impose sanctions on the Assad regime, and was also the first Arab country to back international intervention in Libya — even sending its own special forces to support the anti-Qaddafi rebels.
For the countries that could be potential new bases, Hamas’s weakness presents an opportunity to turn the group away from extremism, isolate it from Iranian influence, and potentially lay the groundwork for renewed negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
The Wall Street Journal article contended that Hamas is being encouraged to make a hurried exit out of Syria by Qatar and Turkey. According to the Hamas official quoted in that piece, the two countries have castigated the group for its continued relationship with the murderous Assad regime, allegedly telling Hamas, in the words of the official, “Have you no shame? It’s enough. You have to get out.” On the verge of becoming embroiled in a Syrian civil war, Hamas is “looking to re-establish themselves somewhere with stability” according to one Palestinian official quoted in the Times of London last week, but also where it will be “protected, diplomatically and militarily, from Israel.”
It is unlikely that Hamas’ top leadership will move its headquarters to Gaza, as the group would be vulnerable to attacks by Israel. Jordan is another possibility, but the Hashemite kingdom and Hamas don’t have a smooth relationship — Hamas officials were expelled from the country in 1999 for actions deemed harmful to the state. Fear of becoming a flashpoint for regional conflict could still convince King Abdullah to avoid strengthening ties with Hamas. There’s always Khartoum, but relocating to distant Sudan would look like an act of desperation for Hamas, which has always prided itself for exercising influence at the center of the Arab world.
Hamas’ position is unenviable. On the one hand, it faces pressure from Iran, another patron, which has allegedly threatened to withdraw funding should the group leave Damascus — a threat the Islamic Republic also reportedly followed through on briefly this year when Hamas refused to publicly support Assad. On the other hand, the longer Hamas remains in Damascus and implicitly stands by Assad, the more legitimacy it will lose among Palestinians living in Syria and broadly among Sunnis opposing the regime. It will also find itself working against its ideological affiliates in the Muslim Brotherhood — an important force in the Syrian opposition movement.
As we argued in our July 2011 report on Fatah-Hamas unity, Hamas’s increasingly untenable position toward the Arab revolt was what induced politburo chief Khaled Mashaal to discuss reconciliation and a unity government back in May with his Palestinian political rival, Fatah — an arrangement the group had previously rejected when offered by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2010. The fragility of its position in Syria may have also inspired Hamas to arrange the prisoner swap that exchanged Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners — a move designed to secure much-needed popular kudos and international credibility. Hamas is trying, in its own way, to look like a group that other countries can do business with.
But do those countries have any interest in playing host to Hamas — a movement that has proven to be one of the chief obstacles to regional peace and stability? One could assume that splitting Hamas’ political operations between Doha and Cairo could provide a check on the group’s behavior. At the same time, there’s a risk that it could act more liberally in Qatar — in order to acquire legitimacy — while at the same time developing a more radical agenda in Egypt, especially with its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, set to dominate the Egyptian Parliament.
For its part, Qatar may view the prospect of hosting Hamas as an opportunity to increase its diplomatic clout and leverage in the region, as it has done since the start of the Arab Spring. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir, has long played a behind the scenes role in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. He previously offered to establish a bilateral committee with the United States to advance Arab-Israeli peace, to mediate internal Palestinian disputes, and has provided $50 million in financial support to the then Hamas-led Palestinian Authority in 2006.
Achieving peace in the region has been Qatar’s stated policy goal since 1994, when Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamid bin Jassim al-Thani said in a Washington event that the country was willing to talk to all parties in the conflict, including Israel. Qatar pursued low-level diplomatic relations with Israel and even hosted an Israeli trade mission in Doha. However, the relationship broke off in December 2008, after Israel launched its offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Hamas, on the other hand, currently enjoys Qatar’s hospitality: Mashaal, for example, currently owns a house in Doha.
The Qataris have previously expressed interest in weaning Hamas away from its extremist politics and Iranian influence. In one WikiLeaks revelation that documented a meeting with Sen. John Kerry in Feb. 2010, Sheikh Hamad said that he could help move Hamas because Qatar doesn’t “play in their internal politics” nor share its ideology. Like its neighbor, Saudi Arabia, Qatar also has a compelling interest in containing Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, which it previously believed could be achieved through Assad’s influence on Hamas. In that same meeting with Kerry, the emir conveyed his belief that Assad could “help Arab extremists make tough choices.”
With Qatar now leading the charge against Assad, it is no doubt looking for other methods to isolate Iran by moderating Hamas. Offering Hamas political refuge in Doha has the potential to diminish the threat the group poses to regional peace, but the offer should only be made if Hamas accepts the Quartet Principles, which including recognizing Israel’s right to exist, laying down arms, and committing to a negotiated settlement. Qatar should give Hamas leaders a one- to two-year deadline in which to purge their organisation of its most extreme elements, adjust its institutional priorities, and accept the need for a negotiated settlement with Israel. If not, Hamas should be turned out into the cold.
If Qatar can deliver on this ambitious scheme, the Quartet powers should in turn reward the country with an official position in any future Arab-Israeli negotiations, which have been stalled since March 2011. At the same time, any invitation to join this elite diplomatic club should entail responsible behavior from the Qataris, not the type seen in Libya, where — though lauded for its efforts — itallegedly provided money and weapons to Islamist factions without prior approval from the ruling National Transitional Council.
All this, of course, is a long shot. As Hamas’ raison d’être has been the destruction of Israel, it would have to be in a significantly weak position in order to make such significant concessions. Yet as the need for a new base becomes increasingly apparent, political pragmatists such as Mashaal may conclude that they have no other option. That is, of course, provided that their new patron makes this a condition of their hospitality.
It may well be the case the Hamas is incapable of moderation. Then again, many also thought that the Palestine Liberation Organization could never accept the state of Israel. In any event, if Hamas does not moderate, this exercise may accomplish something even more helpful than bringing Hamas into the political fold: It may precipitate its demise by unleashing internal war between the pragmatic and extremist elements within the group. With traditional power brokers either out of the game or sitting on the sidelines, the United States and Europe may find that it’s not such a bad idea to throw their weight behind the Qataris.