Hussein Ibish analyzes Hamas Dilemma

Dec 27, 2011 Published under Israel, Mideast Negotiations, Palestine

IPF (with great leadership from David Halperin) has been putting out great content, including this really eloquent interview with Hussein Ibish on the forces at play that are pressuring Hamas and Fatah, and what can people expect from them.



IPF Interviews



Hussein Ibish is a regular contributor to many American and Middle Eastern publications, including Foreign Policy and the Atlantic, is a monthly contributor to Al Hayat and a weekly columnist for Now Lebanon. He has made thousands of radio and television appearances and was the Washington, DC Correspondent for the Daily Star (Beirut).


* Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity. The conversation took place on December 22, 2011. The views expressed are solely those of Hussein Ibish, not of any organization.


  • Hamas is being forced to adjust its posture, including its longstanding ties to Syria and Iran as the region is increasingly aligning along sectarian lines.
  • Fatah is also under pressure as Muslim Brotherhood movements are gaining influence throughout the Arab world.
  • There is significant tension within Hamas between the external leadership and internal leadership, with the external leaders under considerably more pressure.
  • Reports of an Interim Leadership Framework leading to Hamas and others joining the PLO is likely an effort to show the Palestinian public that efforts toward unity are being made—but it would be very difficult for Hamas politically to join the PLO and maintain its posture as a resistance movement.
  • Mahmoud Abbas’ meeting with Palestinian prisoners released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap agreement is also a move intended to bolster domestic political support. Abu Mazen and others within the PA and Fatah have come to the conclusion that there is ‘nothing they can do or say that will make headway with this Israeli government.’ 
  • Hamas’ hopes that the Muslim Brotherhood will not only influence, but rule, politics in the Arab world are far-fetched.
  • The United States remains the only viable broker for a peace agreement that can produce what the Palestinians want—an independent state and an end to the occupation.  This is a fundamental reality.  The Palestinians cannot afford a long-term crisis with the United States.

Steven L. Spiegel (IPF National Scholar):  This week there were new reconciliation talks between the Palestinian factions in Cairo, and reports that Hamas and others are joining the PLO. What is going on among the Palestinians between Hamas and Fatah? Is this a major change?  What is happening?

Hussein Ibish: Hamas has been forced to seriously readjust its regional role because it can no longer remain part of the Syrian-Iranian alliance of which it has been a core member for almost two decades. Its relationship with what is now essential seen, by most of the other Arab Sunni Islamists – and Sunni governments – in the Arab World, as a Shiite alliance led by Iran of entirely non-Sunni actors, mostly Shiites. Certainly this is a non-Sunni alliance and maybe in so many ways an anti-Sunni alliance. Now, Hamas ideologically is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood of Palestine, and it just couldn’t continue under these circumstances to rely on the old narrative of a culture of resistance versus a culture of accommodation. That narrative, which allowed it to uniquely be aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood movement on the one hand, and this sort of Shiite or quasi-Shiite Iranian alliance on the other, has broken down.

The region is realigning in my view very strongly along sectarian lines. This is most clear in Syria, where only non-Sunni actors now support the Assad regime, and almost all Sunni actors –including Turkey and the Arab Islamists and Arab governments – are opposed to the Assad regime. This put Hamas in an impossible situation vis a vis the headquarters of its politburo, its external political leadership – Khaled Meshaal and his colleagues – they really cannot stay in Syria in the long-run and they cannot rely on Iran as a principle patron or source of much of anything.  So, they are literally and figuratively on the move.

There’s also pressure on Fatah.  There is real concern about the role of the new Egyptian government – as the Muslim Brotherhood gains a great deal of influence there …  you can see the Muslim Brotherhood gaining ground not just through the elections but generally in Egypt and analogous in parties Tunisia and other places, so there is also a lot of pressure on Fatah.

The Palestinian demand in terms of the Arab Spring was not for regime change but for unity. This is something that the groups have been working on for awhile.  What they did earlier this year was agree to make an agreement. But what they found is that they couldn’t agree on a national unity government of technocrats or anything like that. Now they are talking about holding elections in May, and they claim they have formed committees to oversee those elections.

There is new information that Hamas – and possibly Islamic Jihad and others – may try to join the PLO.  Now this is very complex.  And there even might be what is being called and “Interim Leadership Framework” of the PLO that could be a kind of a supra organizational committee including PLO leaders, Fatah leaders, Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders, and maybe even others, which would probably be more for show than anything else. But again, responding to that call for unity.

One final word on the question of unity: I think everyone agrees that Palestinian unity is important. Certainly all the Palestinians do. And, I think even the Israelis do. I mean everyone has complained about the division within the Palestinian national movement.  The question is not whether the Palestinians should re-unify – whether that’s necessary or important for peace or for any constructive purpose – the question is: on whose terms is that re-unification going to come?  That very much remains to be seen.

So I can’t answer the question as to whether this is cosmetic or the beginning of a serious transformation. Insofar as Hamas has to realign itself with other actors: Turkey, Qatar, maybe Jordan, Egypt, etc., it is going to be dealing with a group of countries relying in fact on support of a group of countries with very different relationships to the regional status quo, to the United States, to Israel, than Syria and Iran did.  It’s going to have to make some pretty big changes. The less they have to make changes, I think, the happier they’ll be.  Different parts of the organization are more ready for change than others. But, they might have no choice but to make some very painful adjustments and you can see at least the cosmetics of that happening. Now how far it goes? Again, I think, in the end, the regional re-alignment will be the most influential factor in determining where all of the different Palestinian movements end up going.

Jordan, Egypt – even Qatar – are government that have contacts with Israel.  How does Hamas become associates with these governments without making changes on their policy vis a vis Israel? Particularly when these countries want close relations with the United States?

I think the answer is they can’t.  The question is, in a sense, do you decide to fully re-align and really embrace a transformed role within the region, sort of give up on your hardcore anti-status quo positions, and really reconsider attitudes not only to US but to Israel as well, which would make it possible perhaps for Hamas to join the PLO.  If Hamas joined the PLO under the current circumstances that exist now, it would almost certainly mean agreeing to the PLO’s existing positions: the letter of mutual recognition that Chairman Arafat sent to Prime Minister Rabin in ‘93 recognizing the State of Israel, or at least not opposing that.  I mean they wouldn’t necessarily have to issue a statement enforcing it, but they would be joining an organization for which that is a central pillar of its policy, and in effect committing to the Quartet conditions that they have resisted for so long.

Now in a certain sense strategically in terms of having the kind of support: the headquarters, the material and financial support that they need, this is an easy choice to make, and is probably something that they would really want to do. On the other hand, there is a heavy political price to be doing that.

Because insofar as Hamas has been presenting itself as the alternative natural leadership – the rival – potential national movement of the Palestinian people to the PLO and Fatah. They’ve had to do it by outbidding the nationalists on the struggle with Israel: on saying they will never recognize Israel, which they continue to maintain; that they think only in terms of a long term truce and not a peace agreement with Israel; that they continue at least in rhetoric if not in practice the use of armed struggle etc, etc, and have refused to accede to the Quartet conditions.  

How could they do that so easily?

There is a big problem for them in doing it.  In terms of recognizing Israel, they could get away with recognizing that the aim is a two-state solution.  I don’t think they would actually have to issue a statement recognizing Israel. I think they would have to accept the principle of a two-state solution—basically what Netanyahu has done. Netanyahu has not recognized a Palestinian state but he’s recognized at his Bar Ilan University speech and many other occasions in the last couple of years the goal of a two-state solution. I think that would be sufficient. Certainly they would have to renounce violence, particularly terrorism and absolutely crucially the legitimacy of existing PLO agreements, particularly as members of the PLO they couldn’t really reject outstanding treaty commitments undertaken by the PLO. 

But here’s the political problem: Insofar as they have been trying to challenge the PLO as the national leadership for the Palestinians, they’ve had to do it from a position of outbidding them on a national strategy for independence, liberation, etc. They can’t really hope to get a majority of Palestinian support based on Muslim social conservatism. That’s just not going to work for them among the Palestinians. So it’s almost asking them to give up their brand.  Then Palestinians would basically be confronted with two organizations: one Islamist social conservative, reactionary and with a bunch o social attitudes that I think are not shared by a majority of Palestinians; and the other a socially conservative but nationalist group– fighting for the same goals: a two-state solution through non-violent means and a state along Israel.  I think they’d risk losing their brand.  I don’t know how they recoup that if they went along with all of this. At the same time, how much of that brand of resistance they can keep if their main sponsors are countries like Qatar, turkey, Jordan and Egypt is very hard to understand.

So I think their in a tricky spot. And I also think there are many different fissures within the Hamas movement, it breaks down along multiple axes of course personal, political regional, etc. The biggest is the division between the external and internal leadership.  The external leadership has known for many months that it’s got to leave Syria it can’t maintain its relationship with Iran anymore, it has to look for a new home, new sponsors and a new profile—they have no choice. For them it’s not a matter of calculating costs. It’s a matter of existential necessity. The leadership in Gaza, I think, insofar as they are loyal to the external leadership would maybe go along with this because they see the primacy of that leadership.  But the people who see themselves as independent Hamas leaders in Gaza, I think stand to lose a great deal. They are sitting pretty in Gaza. They don’t have the same kind of emergency crisis of even knowing where to physically be that the external leaders do. I think you can see a lot of tension between internal and external forces. Particularly the internal hardliner in Gaza Mahmoud Zahar, whose been subject to what ware called ‘severe disciplinary measures’ – I don’t know exactly what those are – but for criticizing the recognition by the external leadership of the authority of the PLO to negotiate with Israel and worse still the authority of the external leadership of the political bureau.  He basically said here in May the leadership is here in Gaza and the people outside are just a part of that. So he kind of inverted what most people in Hamas see as the hierarchy.  And that was considered unacceptable but I think it was a reflection of the tension of this kind of movement where the external leaders see an urgent necessity to adjust themselves to the political reality and the internal leaders only pay the price. It is almost like a tab is being run up by the external leaders on the credit card of the internal leaders, so to speak.

Meanwhile, what Israelis are paying attention to is Mahmoud Abbas meeting with former prisoners released in the Shalit deal, which is having a devastating impact on Israeli opinion. How do you explain this – why do this?

I think Abu Mazen, like Hamas – and not just Abu Mazen, a lot of Fatah’s leadership, the Fatah Executive and Central Committees – have been feeling also the pressure of national legitimacy. A lot of what they have done in the past year has been efforts to shore up their base, their national legitimacy, and their broad public appeal. And I think they came to the conclusion – seen most dramatically expressed in the UN bid – that the point of these exercises was domestic political support.  I think you have seen this in a ratcheting up of rhetoric. There have been a number of efforts by Abu Mazen to reach out to the Israeli public particularly in the few weeks after his UN speech. He gave interviews to Israeli media where he was very forthcoming saying some remarkable things, including that the rejection of the Partition agreement (in 1947) was a mistake. Everyone knows that his own village –Safed – would have been in the Jewish state. So for him to say that in particular given that he was alive at the time – this is a big and important thing for him to say. But it didn’t have any effect. I think the Fatah leadership came to the conclusion that there is nothing they can really do or say that will make serious headway with this Israeli government.

They’ve come to the conclusion they have nothing to work with. So while they don’t want the tax revenues to be withheld, which are 70-75 percent of their budget, and they don’t want a break in relations.  I think they don’t mind doing things that are politically popular among the Palestinians, but maybe not particularly good for relations with the Israelis.  It’s very significant though that Salaam Fayyad is still the prime minister and that this has been a major issue between Fatah and Hamas – Hamas being a group that cannot stand Salaam Fayyad – that security cooperation continues, that the state and institution building program on the ground continues. And, that nothing in the core deep structure of the status quo that has been built over the last couple of years by the Fayyad government of the PA has been dismantled or broken down. There have been hiccups like the finance minister withholding tax revenues, some of the US aid being withheld because of a procedural hold put in place by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and some other things. But these are hiccups. The deep structural cooperation is still there. But at the political level there’s a sense that the Arab Spring has put huge pressure both because of regional changes and the reactions of the Palestinian public on both of these groups to move quickly to deal with what is a crisis of legitimacy for Fatah, and not only a crisis of legitimacy for Hamas, but also a crisis of identity, of branding and of who they are.

It is a much deeper crisis for Hamas which is why I think you see a great deal of movement on their side in terms of how they’re appearing to adjust themselves or preparing people for potentially big adjustments.  But again, I think they will try to keep it to a minimum because how they maintain their political strength after that becomes s hard to imagine.

If they did do that. They would be pitting all their hopes on the notion that Muslim Brotherhood parties would come to power not only in Egypt but in many Arab states, and the Arab world would at least be 30-50 percent Muslim Brotherhood ruled, not just sharing power but really ruled by Muslim Brotherhood parties. Then they could present themselves as part of that world, and that could be another kind of brand.

But that doesn’t look like it’s happening, frankly.  I don’t agree with those people who think the Islamists are taking over everywhere.  It doesn’t look that way at all. I think if that’s what they are betting on they are making a losing bet.  Sure, Islamists parties are going to do well in any early elections, but in Egypt the presidency is still in the armed forces, the Islamists have a big chunk of a body that has very little authority. In Tunisia, they did well but are in a coalition with a bunch of secular organizations.

This hope that the Muslim Brotherhood will simply sweep into uncontested leadership in the Arab world is I think a very, very far fetched one. So Hamas will have to be very careful about placing all of their bets on that.  Though it is significant that Hamas did do something that is has never done before which is join the umbrella ‘international Muslim Brotherhood-parties’ group. Everyone knows they are an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine but they never joined the international Brotherhood movement, and they did do so in the past few weeks.  And that’s significant and it’s all part of a movement to re-brand. But I think it’s a very delicate operation for them filled with risks.  I don’t think they quite know how they are going to handle it, which is why so much of this might prove to be cosmetic and for public consumption.  I will remind you it’s been about a year since Hamas and Fatah were supposed to form a unity government, release each other’s political prisoners – which they haven’t been able to do, find a new prime minister – which they haven’t done, have new elections, which they re talking about but haven’t done. They have formed in any number of committees doing different things but not one item has happened, not even the release of political prisoners, let alone the removal of Fayyad or elections or anything.

If Hamas doesn’t break with its past, Palestinians will lose funding—even from some Europeans. How would they deal with that?

Obviously, it would be highly ill-advised to say the least for the PA to enter into an agreement with Hamas that would result in a loss of all US aid and a lot of international aid from Europe and expect aid form Arab states and Turkey will cover that. And, to deal with a crisis in relations with the US that would result in something more than money. The EU combined is the biggest donor to the Palestinians but the US is the single largest donor. If you also exclude tax revenues from Israel, you are talking about a potential complete economic breakdown and it is hard to see if that could be sustained.

It’s hard to see how the PA would deal with that and survive. You can only not pay your security officials and others for so many weeks before they stop showing up to work—it’s as simple as that.

But in addition to that there is a reality that the United States is the only real, viable broker for a peace agreement, and in the end the Palestinians cannot get what they need – an independent state and an end to the occupation – without an agreement with Israel. I don’t think anybody doubts that at a certain level a third party is needed.  Sometimes third parties can complicate things, but at a minimum, you need the US for bridging proposals, for guarantees, and to create a mechanism to hold the parties to account for actually doing what they have promised they would do, something that is desperately needed now. And, to reassure the Israelis, because the United States is the only country that Israel trusts. Now there are a lot of people who say that the United States is not an appropriate third party, although we need a third party. What they need to understand is there is no alternative. It is not as if the United States is hoarding this selfishly or beating back lots of competitors. I can only think of France as any other country of any note at all that has expressed an interest in doing this. And France alone cannot do it.  The EU isn’t interested. The UN as a multilateral organization isn’t interested in it.  Nobody else. Its not isn’t a question of the US being indispensably positioned to do it, it’s also the question that there isn’t a rival for doing it. The Palestinians cannot in their long-term interests afford a huge and extended breakdown or crisis with the United States. But ultimately they need cooperation with the United States, not just financially and technically, but ultimately politically if they are to get what they need. No matter how frustrated they are this is a very fundamental reality.

Israel Policy Forum

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

related posts


  1. arafahrt said:

    Leftist traitors and murderers of Jews by arab occupants’ hands should be thrown into the sea or tried and hanged by the Nuremberg Tribunal. Instead of a 4th illegal terrorist muslim state in Ramallah on occupeid and stolen native Jeiwhs lands — others are Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, second Jewish state of Shomron should be created in Judea and Samaria.

post a new comment