September 28, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Spooky Actions: The Entanglement of Hamas Elections and Regional Issues

As of late September 2012, while the international community is understandably focused on the Iranian nuclear issue and its effects on the stability of the entire region and beyond, there is far less focus on the pending leadership change in Hamas and how this would also have region-wide effects that are both substantial and not yet completely understood. The on-going elections — and the news that Khaled Meshal, the long-time head of Hamas' Political Bureau, is not seeking reelection — will present policymakers with a new, uncertain, and possibly destabilizing factor in a region already roiling with uncertainty and instability.

The Soufan Group recently discussed the entanglement of foreign policy in its IntelBrief, Spooky Action at a Distance: The Entanglement of National Interests Part I, which examined how one event can generate a "spooky action at a distance" by affecting another, seemingly unrelated event because the two had once been connected. The Hamas election, and the way it will cause unpredictable reactions in unexpected places, is an ideal example of what we mean by entanglement. From the Iranian nuclear issue to Egypt's experience with democratic Islamism to the moribund Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, Hamas' new leadership will effect all of these because at one time or another it has been connected to each...and so still is.


Entangled with Diverging Forms of Itself

While there are conflicting reports as to why Meshal is not seeking another term, it is clear there has been tension between his supporters, comprised of Palestinian diaspora outside of Gaza, and the hard-wing faction that is the elected power in Gaza and led by long-time Meshal rivals such as Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Moussa Abu Marzouk. Both Haniyeh and Marzouk have been mentioned as possible successors to Meshal, though other candidates are also being considered in the on-going secret balloting. One certain inference is that no matter the successor, the Gaza wing of the organization is rising, with significant implications for the issues mentioned earlier.

In recent years, Meshal was a relative moderate when compared to the Gaza faction, pushing for reconciliation with the West-Bank-centered Fatah, led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Meshal's efforts to reconcile Hamas with Fatah in order to politically unify the Palestinians — something that has eluded the groups for years — will probably come to an end if a Gaza-based Hamas official takes the helm. The split between the West Bank and Gaza could deepen even further, and political infighting could give way to street fighting if tensions get out of hand. This infighting could also doom the already unlikely prospects for near-term progress on the Palestinian-Israeli talks.


Entangled with Iran

Meshal — now temporarily based in Doha after leaving Syria because of the revolution there — was viewed by regional leaders such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia both as a man with whom they could work in efforts to politically unify the Palestinians and as someone who was arguably less beholden to Iran, a major supporter of Hamas and prime source of tension in the Gulf. This point bears repeating, and further examination of how it remains entangled with one of the most pressing current security issues: the Iranian nuclear issue. The Gulf states have invested heavily in getting Hamas and Fatah to sign the Doha Declaration that specified Abbas would lead a unity government. However, if a Gaza-wing official succeeds Meshal as leader of Hamas, the Gulf states will have suffered a striking setback in their efforts to minimize Iran's regional influence.

Meanwhile, the strategic relationship between Israel and the United States, which has been able to focus on Israeli domestic issues in part because tensions with the Palestinians have merely simmered instead of boiling over, will likely be confronted with increased Palestinian pressure just as events with Iran reach a climax. A Gaza-led Hamas would likely move closer to Iran for support, particularly military support now that restrictions at the Gaza border with Egypt have been relaxed, further adding fuel to the combustible situation. Policymakers should plan for the possibility of a more hardline Gaza-led Hamas that is tangentially entangled with the Iranian nuclear issue, along with a range of implications that could emerge from such a scenario.


Entangled with Egypt

Furthermore, the rise of the Gaza wing — which absolutely rejects reconciliation with Fatah as well as any talk of effectively negotiating with an Israel they still do not recognize — is similarly entangled with the rise in Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), Hamas' parent organization. While the two are separate organizations, Hamas wouldn't have existed without the MB and their entanglement thus runs deep. Newly elected Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is openly supportive of the Gaza wing of Hamas and less supportive of Egypt's current peace treaty with Israel. In a clear signal both to his domestic audience and the international community, Morsi stated during his September 26th speech at the U.N General Assembly that his foreign policy priority as leader of Egypt was to deal with the Palestinian issue. He then went on to state that Egypt would play a larger role in helping to defuse the Iranian issue through an avenue outside of the U.N Security Council.

While all Arab leaders understandably stress the need for some solution, or at least progress, with the Palestinian-Israeli issue, Morsi is the first Muslim Brotherhood member elected as president and so policymakers should give additional weight to his stated intentions. None of this is to suggest that Morsi's Egypt will join with Hamas to dramatically confront Israel; the spooky actions of entanglement are never that clearcut. Rather, what this means is there is no longer something called a status quo because events are now so complicated and entangled in the Middle East that instability at some level is likely the only reliable constant. The assumptions made by analysts and policymakers based on more predictable actions by more predictable state actors — especially as it concerns the Palestinian issue that continues to move at a glacial pace — will prove ineffective as entanglement accelerates.


Deep Questions

There are more questions than answers concerning the Hamas elections. What are the implications of a more assertive or confrontational Hamas both in its dealing with Fatah as well as with Israel and other countries? Will this prompt or doom renewed Palestinian-Israeli negotiations? How does having a member of the Muslim Brotherhood as the president of the influential neighbor, Egypt, effect Hamas, since the Brotherhood is well-known for its nonviolent stance while the Gaza wing and its Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade still view violence as an appropriate tool in their opposition to Israel? Will increased internal public tensions force Morsi more towards the Gaza-Hamas stance or will he be a moderating force on them? Will Iran move to increase its support for Hamas if similarly hardline officials take charge in the organization, and how does having a harder-line Hamas more aligned with Iran effect the Iranian nuclear issue?

The theory of entanglement when it comes to foreign policy and national interests suggests the answers to these questions will not arise in isolation. And these are precisely the questions that will be systematically explored in future IntelBriefs.



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