Is Hamas Ready to Negotiate?

| Tue Jul. 25, 2006 6:39 PM EDT

Via Kevin Drum, the Guardian is reporting that some Hamas leaders are looking to negotiate a ceasefire in Gaza:

Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have agreed to stop firing rockets at Israel and to free a captured Israeli soldier in a deal brokered by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.

The deal, agreed on Sunday, is to halt the rocket attacks in return for a cessation of Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, and to release Corporal Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured on June 25, in exchange for the freeing of Palestinian prisoners at some point in the future....

This has been accepted by Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, and the Hamas political movement but not by Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader in Damascus. Mr Meshal wields considerable power because he controls funds donated by Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The military wing of Hamas, which is holding Cpl Shalit, is particularly dependent on the money from Mr Meshal.

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The rift between Haniya and Meshaal seems critical and is worth trying to understand. Before the current fighting in Gaza and Lebanon broke out, Scott Atran of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reported that Haniya had apparently agreed with Abbas to form "a national coalition that implicitly allows for the coexistence of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, following the 1967 borders." Needless to say, this was groundbreaking, if true. But Meshaal, who does indeed control Hamas' military wing, thwarted the plan, and as one Abbas advisor said, "he has repeatedly tried to undermine the Haniya government's authority to negotiate."

The subtext here is that Haniya is very popular among Palestinians, seeing as how he masterminded Hamas' brilliant campaign in last year's elections. And Avi Dichter, Israel's minister in charge of internal security, thinks Haniya is sincere about negotiating—although he's obviously no "moderate". But Meshaal, as the Guardian points out, still controls Hamas' purse strings, and he's emerged the victor in previous clashes with Haniya—among other things, he thwarted the proposed Palestinian legislative elections in 1995, causing Haniya to leave Hamas briefly.

So the prospects for Haniya's latest gambit don't look great, especially so long as Meshaal wants to prolong the war against Israel (unless, of course, Syria and Iran want to ratchet down tensions a smidgen and force Meshaal to accept the deal). But here's the catch: Hamas leaders reportedly told Atran that they're forced to depend on Meshaal so long as the United States and Israel continues to "isolate and starve the Hamas government." Where else, after all, will they get the funds they need to survive?

So perhaps—perhaps—if the United States and Israel abandon their strategy of trying to devastate Gaza in the hopes that Palestinians will abandon Hamas, they could potentially strengthen the hand of the marginally less-militant political wing. This might all just be wishful thinking, but it's a possibility. Speaking of which, Menachem Klein, a professor at Bar-Illan University in Israel, wrote a good piece for Logos about Israel's strategy to cripple Hamas by breaking Gaza's back. He explains how that option won out among others, argues that it's a failed strategy, and has some smart things to say about the general failure of Olmert's plan for unilateral withdrawal from West Bank. I'd recommend the full article.

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