By Fadi Elhusseini
Many observers saw a potential breakthrough in Tony Blair’s recent meeting with the head of Hamas’s political bureau Khaled Meshaal that may take Hamas out of the bottleneck and lead to a long-term truce between the movement and Israel. Yet, it appears that the crux of the issue surpasses initial assessments, as this meeting comes in the midst of entangled developments and may perhaps lead to various domestic, regional and global transformations.
After years of estrangement, Meshaal has met with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Following this meeting, Meshaal met with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and recently with the former representative of the Quartet on the Middle East, Tony Blair. According to the Guardian, this fourth rendezvous has been the most recent in a string of meetings to have piqued suspicions of a prospective long-term truce between Hamas and Israel.
Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that Israel has agreed to a sea route between the Gaza Strip and Cyprus in return for a long-term ceasefire with Hamas. Yet the news on the issue have coincided with contradictory statements from Hamas officials: while some confirmed the story, others have outright refuted it. Leaks suggest that Hamas’s Consultative Council had a quasi-unanimous ruling on such a deal, with only two leaders from the body expressing their discontent therewith.
These developments have corresponded with many statements by Turkish officials who have emphasized the need to settle the conflict between Israel and Hamas. They also declared their rejection of any hostile activities by Hamas aimed at Israel from Turkish soil amid Israeli-Turkish talks of renormalising relations.
The Palestinian Authority (PA), for its part, has rebuffed any side agreements between Hamas and Israel, a position adopted by many Arab countries and led by Egypt. This position stems from the view that any individual side agreements between Hamas and Israel will override what proponents of this approach consider to be the legitimate Palestinian leadership, represented by Mahmoud Abbas. It is also argued that the supposed agreement may also lead to the de facto separation of the Gaza Strip from the rest of occupied Palestine and thus it might be considered an official declaration of the death of any efforts for Palestinian national reconciliation.
The damage of such a deal would not be limited to Palestinian internal affairs, but would rather weaken official Palestinian diplomacy that has lately been able to achieve remarkable accomplishments. To elaborate, with the aim of aborting any Palestinian diplomatic activism, it has become a fundamental strategy of Israel to delegitimise the role of the Palestinian leadership. Having said that, because the Palestinians have been marred with their own divisions since 2007 (i.e. between Hamas and Fatah), Israel has been using this fracture to propagate its own narrative that the Palestinian Authority does not represent all Palestinians. A unilateral deal between Hamas and Israel would unequivocally stand in favor this narrative and strategy.
When attempting to analyse the motives behind Israel’s decision to broker a truce with an organisation it considers “terrorist”, it appears that the issue outweighs a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict itself and merely prolongs the current Palestinian division. In modern history, Israel has always tried to secure one front when it expects or plans an action on other fronts. In other words, when expecting or planning a war against the southern front (the Gaza Strip), it seeks to secure the northern front (Hezbollah). Similarly, when it expects action on the northern front, it plans on securing the southern front with Hamas.
However, it has become obvious that Hezbollah is not the sole menace for Israel in the north, especially when considering Syria with all its complicated components. This perspective becomes more tangible when linked to developments suggesting that major powers are seeking arrangements to secure the exit of Assad from Syria without a realistic alternative. Such would definitely lead to more chaotic conditions on Israel’s northern front and could potentially lead to an unexpected reaction from Hezbollah if it lost Assad as its chief protector and supplier in the Levant.
Whether the suspicions of a prospective Hamas-Israel truce deal are accurate or not, what is definite is that the Blair-Meshaal meeting has taken place in a wider context amid the formulation of new regional arrangements for Syria in a post-Assad era. As such, the preceding meetings that brought together Meshaal, the Russian foreign minister and the Turkish president fit nicely into the same line of logic that requires regional and global powers to recognise the important role of non-state actors in the region as one of the main outcomes of the so-called Arab Spring.
As such, Russia will never forsake Assad without securing a new caretaker of its interests in the region. In the same vein, Turkey shares extensive borders with Syria and has a number of entangled interests, including the issue of Kurdish independence and its fear of a Kurdish entity in northern Syria. Thus, none of the regional powers are left with the luxury to choose their new allies. The US closely follows these developments and was able to sort a new arrangement with all Middle Eastern parties, including Iran (following the nuclear deal) and Russia. From one side, some US reports maintain that the withdrawal of Patriot missiles from Turkey was done in coordination between Russia and the US. On the other side, the withdrawal also satisfies the Kurds and makes the US appear more neutral vis-à-vis the Turkish stance against the PKK. Meanwhile, the US abstained from irking the Turks by opening channels for military cooperation between the two countries, especially in the fight against ISIS.
These calculations were all on the table when the Saudi King received Meshaal, yet this meeting added a new element: the war in Yemen. The current situation in Yemen has underscored the necessity for new players in the game, particularly the fact that the conflict in Yemen has been taking on a sectarian hue. Hence, the Saudi-Hamas meeting constitutes a stepping stone for a greater role for the movement in the region and for the entirety of the Arab order itself. Finally, after a four-year period of hesitation, Arab regimes have started to absorb the ramifications of the so-called Arab Spring by building new strategies and by forming new alliances with the new emerging player: non-state actors and movements.
In the same vein, Sarkis Naoum, a senior columnist for Lebanon’s Annahar newspaper, finds that the Iranian nuclear deal was another reason behind the Saudi-Hamas meeting. According to Naoum, this deal pushed Saudi Arabia to move ahead in order to keep the cards in its hand, allowing it to rally forces that share a similar ideology, religion or nationalist dream with the Saudis.
In a recent article, Naoum referred to research issued by a US Centre claiming that the main aim for Saudi Arabia is threefold: to build a Sunni alliance and an Arab coalition in the face of an anticipated Iranian threat; to end the Houthi’s growing influence in Yemen; and to improve its relationship with Sudan (by improving its relationship with Hamas) as well as to drive Sudan away from Iran.
In nutshell, it is obvious that regional players have started to reorganise their cards and solidify their alliances and strategies in order to cope with the rapid changes in the region, the most significant of which can be seen as the Iranian nuclear deal, the probable fall of Assad and the rising role of non-state actors, especially religious and Islamist movements.
Fadi Elhusseini is a Palestinian diplomat and an associate research fellow (ESRC) at the Institute for Middle East Studies-Canada and a doctoral candidate at the University of Sunderland in Britain. His articles have appeared in scores of newspapers, magazines and websites.