Is Hamas Politburo leader Khaled Mashaal’s constellation dimming? He’s already announced he’ll be stepping down, and whether or not his next step to be a more active international leader in the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, if he keeps his word he may not be the man eventually presiding over the (stalled) implementation of “unity” agreement with Fatah that has been sitting dead in the water since Hamas put forward terms that Fatah did not (and could not) accept.
Formally, the talks are on hold because of these internal elections, which occur over several rounds and go on through May, after which talks in Cairo will return the main players to the negotiating table. Haaretz has reported that Haniyeh bested Mashaal in the internal vote, and that as a result Mashaal is likely to stay on but turn over military and budgetary oversight to Hanieyh. Xinhua offered more specific details on what has been transpiring in these elections: Haniyeh reportedly secured an “unprecedented” 85 percent of the votes, though his deputies struggled to make gains against Mashaal’s associates and members of the armed wing of Hamas (along with two prisoners released in last year’s prisoner exchange, who seem to have received a massive sympathy vote).
All reports rely on anonymous sourcing, and Hamas has officially denied the Haaretz report, though no word has followed about the Xinhua coverage. It is, however, generally accepted that Hamas is conducting internal elections at this time and that the results will greatly affect the outcome of talks with Abu Mazen over the stalled “unity” agreement.
Haniyeh has buttressed his position within Hamas thanks to the group’s departure from Syria. And he has been making hay from his public positions on the 2011 “unity” agreement with Abu Mazen. His opposition to it was widely noted, as was his apparent change of heart towards it, developments which I’ve discussed before at The Arabist here, here and here.
At this point, Hamas has a “moderate” and a “hardline” faction contesting the “unity” agreement. Internal rivalries have much to do with this, with all parties looking to secure maximum concessions from other Palestinian factions (inside Gaza and out) in the event of a reconciliation; Hamas will not make concessions to Fatah or others cheaply. And this factionalism plays out in terms of deciding on a ceasefire or a policy of “recognition” for Israel’s 1967 borders that goes along with the PLO’s terms, since accepting those terms would require Hamas to seriously reconsider its image, and the role of armed struggle against Israel, in the Arab world and in Gaza. Hamas is, for now, able to avoid making such decisions due to the present division of Palestinian leadership and the willingness to let Abu Mazen “handle” the negotiating track while making noises about future referendums for any treaties the Palestinian Authority signs with the Israelis.
Despite these rivalries, there seems to be one overriding concern in the movement’s leadership right now, and that is the determination not to go through a second Cast Lead, either by initiating hostilities or taking actions the IDF would seize upon as cause for another war: the leadership - civil, party and military – all know this would be a disaster for Hamas because while they are left reeling, the disruption of a war would likely benefit Islamic Jihad and other rivals. Hence, the feelers for new alliances in the Arab world since the Arab Spring and concessions to Israeli demands that have occurred under Mashaal’s tenure.
The regional alignments are changing, most significantly in Egypt due to the revolution and in Turkey due to cooling ties between Ankara and Jerusalem, and Hamas sees new opportunities (which the current Israeli government almost to a man sees as new threats). Factored beyond Hamas’s control in Syria have forced it to reevaluate its relationship with Iran (and, of course, Syria as well – unlike Hezbollah, Hamas is not standing by Assad’s side). Some Arab Islamists, notably the Syrian, Egyptian and Jordanian Muslim Brotherhoods, along with Turkey and Qatar, shall surely welcome any moves that would diminish of Iranian influence in the region.
The more “moderate” faction - the faction most often engaged in diplomacy and until several months ago, operating out of Damascus under Mashaal - is willing to discuss, if not make, concessions in Hamas’s ideological underpinnings in order to survive. The “hardline” faction – again, also recognizing the opportunities and uncertainties of the moment in the region – is less opposed to reconciliation in principle, but it seems more determined than the “moderates” to secure maximum benefit for its faction in a future “unity” government.
Retaining control at home is key; the rivalry with Islamic Jihad being one of the main examples of this fixation. At the same time, the top Islamists of Gaza continue to debate whether or not they should “allow” large protest demonstrations against Israel; Mashaal has expressed support for such protests against Israel; his rivals are leery of sanctioning any popular reformist current, not least because of the challenges Hamas would face in a freer political climate from Fatah, and also from smaller Islamist organizations.
Haniyeh is already the “de facto PM” of Gaza and, after Mashaal, one of the group’s most visible leaders in the international arena - notwithstanding Moussa Abu Marzook’s recent Forward Magazine interview discussing Hamas’s stance towards a ceasefire and continued “non-recognition” question. Despite his stance on “recognition” being less compromising than Mashaal’s, or even Haniyeh’s that the Gazan apparatchik - he helped build up the movement’s widely popular social services program - even chose to give such an interview is suggesting the movement is reevaluating its options towards Israel, and cognizant that it ought to be doing more work on polishing its image in the West; when Karl Vick at TIME refers to Hamas’s “mainstreaming,” he means it in that sense.
I now wonder that when Haniyeh became more conciliatory a few months back over Mashaal’s public position, if his acquiescence was at all related to any backroom dealings happening today over the voting, like perhaps Mashaal’s actually staying on as Politburo chief/the fast-tracking of a Damascene deputy close to him, or rumors that Haniyeh will get to be chief of party in Gaza, which would be an unprecedented move.
And some Gazan sources debate whether or not the showings in the elections so far signal either a victory or a defeat for either Mashaal or Haniyeh since all of the votes are not in. The Hamas election process, which is also going to select legislators for the Shura Council, is notoriously oblique - partly because, as Gulf News notes, “Hamas traditionally keeps much of its leadership structure secret to avoid exposing it to attacks by Israel.”
It would be speculative to tease this thought out any further, but the fate of the “unity” agreement in the comings months will depend on how Haniyeh, if he holds his lead and Mashaal is indeed prepared to bow out, may cut deals with Mashaal’s deputies and the Qassam Brigades leaders who are both reportedly making gains in the elections. And the armed forces are debating these matters as well: military commanders have split over the terms of the "unity’ agreement (the rejectionists, according to Saudi media, have sided with the less-compromising Mahmoud Zahar).
Elections and interviews aside, though, Hamas is sending mixed messages; firstly to keep Israel guessing and secondly, to air a controlled narrative of its internal debates for public consumption. But the show is not really being put on for Israel or the US, or even Fatah’s, benefit, even though sending messages to these actors signals negotiators over the nuts and bolts of the “unity” agreement. Hemmed in by the IDF’s deterrence capabilities Hamas is, as it was when Mashaal first went to Qatar to herald the “unity” agreement (drawing Haniyeh’s ire in the process), left with little more than talk today, talk that has clearly left no one satisfied in the region except Hamas’s most hardline cadres. Hamas likes to boast, and its ideologues dream of somehow defeating the “Zionist entity,” but after being so badly decimated by the Israelis and undermined in the West Bank, its leaders must be content today with limited provocations and ruling over Gaza. Hamas, for its part, suggests - through Zahar - that any attempts to restart negotiations with Israel are little more than a means of keeping up appearances for the Oslo Accords, which are held in such low regard by the “peace partners” that even the Israeli negotiatior Yossi Geilin and his Palestinian counterpart Ahmed Qurei say should be done away with to restart peace talks.
One thing analysts ought to remember: Palestinian factionalism - and Israeli/Western spooks enamored of “divide and rule” tactics to that end - is a significant part of why Hamas has scored popular victories that continually elude Fatah, increasingly reduced to censorship within the West Bank to silence its critics.
When Al Quds reported that Hamas was apparently letting Fatah members back into Gaza, Fatah’s “leadership commission’s” danced around the actions of former Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan, whose security forces tried and failed to bring down Hamas in Gaza following the Islamist electoral triumph there in 2006. That this committee will actually amount to a display of real trust following that brief civil war remains to be seen, and one wonders if Fatah will actually reciprocate by easing up pressure on Hamas members in the West Bank. The continued division here, resulting from Hamas’s 2007 crackdown on Fatah in response to Dahlan’s actions, prolongs the status quo - or, more precisely, inches the region towards a situation in which the status quo will be normalized.