Hamas Signals Break with Iran, But Is That Good for Israel?

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Ali Ali / EPA

Palestinian students burn a poster depicting Syrian President Bashar Assad, during a demonstration against his regime at the Unknown Soldier Square in Gaza City on Feb. 21, 2012. Some 500 Palestinians gathered in a Hamas-authorized demonstration in solidarity with Syrian protesters.

A popular Washington illusion once held that the right combination of incentives and punishments might “peel off” Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad from Iran’s “Axis of Resistance,” but nobody would have predicted that the weak link in Iran’s alliance of radicals would turn out to be the Palestinian Islamists of Hamas. Yet, Tuesday’s announcement that the Hamas leadership has officially relocated from Damascus, and its public declarations of support for the Syrian rebels, suggest a dramatic political break with Iran — and with it the end of any illusion Tehran might have harbored of exerting influence in the new revolutionary Arab mainstream. 

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal is now ensconced in Qatar’s capital, Doha, while deputy leader Moussa Abu Marzouk has set up shop in Cairo. And Hamas leaders used last Friday’s midday prayers to publicly salute what Gaza Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh called “the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy and reform.” Iran, Hamas knows, is not amused. But that appears to be a diminishing concern for the movement. Hamas’ relationship with Assad, Tehran’s key Arab ally, began to sour last year when the Palestinian group resisted pressure to stage pro-regime events in refugee camps in Syria. “Our position on Syria is that we are not with the regime in its security solution, and we respect the will of the people,” Marzouk told The Associated Press. He also acknowledged that “The Iranians are not happy with our position on Syria, and when they are not happy, they don’t deal with you in the same old way.”

(MORE: The Mainstreaming of Hamas Continues as Palestinian Unity Gains Steam)

The “same old way” would be financial: While Israeli p.r. likes to portray Hamas as a satellite of Tehran, a glance at the organization’s history, ideology, social base and political DNA offers a reminder that Iran’s relatively recent emergence as Hamas’ key regional supporter was a marriage of convenience for Hamas amid desperate circumstances some six years ago. Although Iran had supported Hamas’ rejection of the Oslo peace process in the early 1990s, the Shi’ite theocracy wasn’t exactly an ideological soulmate of the Sunni Islamist Palestinian movement founded in the 1980s by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. But when the Bush Administration — desperate to reverse the results of the 2006 Palestinian legislative election that had made Hamas the ruling party in the Palestinian Authority — demanded that its Arab allies support a blockade on any funds that might reach a Hamas government, Iran seized the opportunity and stepped up with cash to fill the void. Today, still, Hamas depends on Iranian largesse to make its payrolls in Gaza, just as the West Bank Palestinian Authority depends on Western donor funds to do the same.

For Tehran, supplying the resources that enabled Hamas to confound U.S.-Israeli efforts to destroy it burnished Iranian leadership claims in the Arab world, showing up Arab leaders willing to do Washington’s bidding at the Palestinians’ expense. But Hamas’ options and prospects have been altered by the revolutionary tide that has swept aside some key Arab autocracies and empowered Muslim Brotherhood organizations that remain Hamas’ natural political kin. The Palestinian public is solidly behind the Syrian rebellion, in which the Muslim Brotherhood is a key element. And like-minded parties have won elections in Tunisia and Egypt, and look set to be the main beneficiaries of the democratic wave throughout the Arab world.

If the Arab rebellion has made nonsense of Iran’s claim to speak on behalf of a silenced Arab public, it has also rubbished the Bush-era scheme of uniting moderate Arab autocrats (including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) in alliance against Iran and its Axis of Resistance. Key moderate autocrats like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt have been swept from the stage, while the Gulf monarchs are waging a regional Cold War against Iran that divides the region on sectarian rather than moderate vs. radical lines. None of the traditional U.S. Arab allies follows Washington’s lead these days, and key emerging regional players such as Turkey and Qatar don’t share the U.S. and Israel’s aversion to Hamas. (Nor do they share Washington’s strategy of isolating and pressuring Iran, even if they’re in political competition with the Islamic Republic throughout the region.)

(PHOTOS: Hamas Recruitment Day)

Qatar has already stepped over the wreckage of the U.S.-Israeli effort to smash Hamas and brokered a unity agreement between the movement and Abbas’ rival Fatah party, although its implementation remains bedeviled by deep rivalries and internal splits in Hamas over its terms. And nobody ought to be too surprised if Qatar steps in to make good on any financial shortfall arising from a withdrawal of Iranian funds.

Hamas clearly believes it is no longer so isolated among the region’s governments that it can’t get by without Iran’s support. The newly empowered Muslim Brotherhood parties, however, are going to be too busy governing some very complex and challenging societies to want war with Israel — even if they’re not going to help Israel throttle or pound Gaza the way Mubarak had done. The price of joining the Brotherhood mainstream for Hamas may be embracing its terms, seeking political rather than military strategies to advance the Palestinian cause. Meshaal has certainly made a number of statements hinting at a shift away from arms towards “popular resistance,” although such matters are likely to be a matter of some contention within Hamas’ ranks.

Don’t expect Israel’s leaders to cheer Hamas’ departure from Damascus, however. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long used the claim that Hamas is Iran’s proxy as Exhibit A in making his case that Israel can’t be expected to make territorial compromises with the Palestinians any time soon. A Hamas that moves towards a moderate Islamist mainstream may be less of a military threat to Israel (although it has for some time now been largely observing a cease-fire), but it could pose more of a political challenge (although there’s no sign of Hamas or any other Palestinian faction offering any coherent strategic vision at the moment).

(MORE: Why Israel’s Netanyahu May Prefer a Waltz with Hamas to a Tango with Abbas)

Still, the Palestinian Islamists will fancy their chances of prospering politically by realigning themselves with the new Arab mainstream. Fatah’s strategy of negotiating under U.S. auspices long ago hit a wall. Even as it gestures towards the U.N., it finds itself locked into security arrangements with Israel that effectively reinforce the status quo and its ability to provide a model of good governance intended to contrast with the misery of Gaza is floundering as Western donor aid dries up. Hamas’ break with Syria and Iran and its welcome in Cairo, Doha and even Amman will certainly give Abbas cause for concern: Sure, the shift will move Hamas to a more mainstream orientation, but that could boost its challenge to Fatah’s traditional monopoly on power.

By adroitly jumping ship in Syria, Hamas may have ensured that even if it suffers short-term financial pain, it could ultimately do better after the Arab rebellions than its Fatah rivals have done. And that’s a prospect that won’t please Israel — or the United States.

MORE: As the Peace Process Goes Sideways, Gaza’s Economy Remains Stifled

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