Middle East

Hamas Zaps Some Life Into the Peace Process

The group gains leverage as the Palestinian president heads to the White House.

Hamas's supporters want a say.

Photographer: Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images

As U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to meet Wednesday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, it appears the two-state solution isn’t dead after all. Hamas, the militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, in a modestly surprising move has said it would accept a Palestinian state in pre-1967 borders.

The motives for the announcement, which also came with the group’s distancing from the Muslim Brotherhood, are complex. But the key fact is that the statement is an early win for the Trump administration’s nascent attempt a Middle East peace solution. It’s a sign that Hamas, at least, is taking that potential initiative seriously. It doesn’t want to be left out of whatever peace process emerges -- or blamed if it fails.

QuickTake Two-State Solution

It’s long been assumed that although Hamas wouldn’t act as a spoiler to a deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, it also wouldn’t give up its rejection of a two-state solution -- a powerful source of its legitimacy with skeptical Palestinians.

The announcement on Monday is most noteworthy for altering that traditional Hamas position. At a minimum, Hamas is saying that it now has more to gain from formal openness to a two-state solution than from maintaining its rejectionist stance.

What’s changed? There are internal and external factors. For one thing, Hamas’s grasp of power in Gaza is becoming increasingly tenuous, mostly for economic reasons. Israel has been keeping the purse strings tight, but so has the Palestinian Authority under Abbas. In particular, Abbas has been pushing Hamas to formally transfer government in Gaza to him -- a step that Hamas has so far shown little interest in taking.

Declaring openness to a two-state solution gives Hamas some leverage. It places Hamas in a position to compete with the Palestine Liberation Organization for moderates’ support. And it makes it much harder for Abbas to justify marginalizing Hamas on the theory that it is a barrier to peace.

Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won’t make any formal acknowledgment of the change in the Hamas position. But the announcement undercuts Netanyahu’s strategy of using Hamas as an excuse to avoid a meaningful peace process.

Meanwhile, Hamas also needs support from the Persian Gulf states, especially Qatar. Here’s where the Trump initiative comes into play.

The only way peace is conceivable is if Sunni Arab powers pressure the Palestinians to agree to a two-state solution while Trump pressures the Israelis in parallel. The payoff for both sides is a consolidated Sunni-Israeli-U.S. front against Iran and Syria.

The Qataris therefore have a strong interest in pushing Hamas out of the way of such a grand deal. That means shepherding Hamas through a kind of cleansing process, preparing it to be a productive participant in the peace process.

Distancing Hamas from the Muslim Brotherhood is part of the cleansing. In the aftermath of the failed Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, the international organization is at its weakest point in several decades. Its leaders are enemies of the state in Egypt. Formal political parties affiliated with the Brotherhood still matter in Morocco and Jordan, subject to royal sanction. But everyone understands that the Brotherhood had its historical opportunity to govern -- and flubbed it.

Disassociation of Hamas from its Brotherhood-related origins may help Hamas participate in a negotiation that includes Egypt -- and therefore necessarily excludes the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s symbolic, but not trivial.

The takeaway from all this is that Hamas is reacting to the expectation that Trump is going to make a try at a grand peace initiative that focuses on a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. And it can only be seen as a promising sign that Hamas wants in.

The odds of success remain low, of course.

Trump has to be able to pressure Netanyahu credibly to accept a deal that Netanyahu’s coalition won’t want to take. That won’t be easy, because Congress might well block Trump from punishing Netanyahu for noncompliance.

And getting to a deal that would be acceptable to mainstream Palestinians is also a formidable obstacle.

But on the Palestinian side, the Hamas moves lessen the worry that Hamas might try to block Abbas from doing a deal. To the contrary, Hamas may now be open to seeking a reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority, in which it normalizes itself and enters into the government of a new Palestinian state, maybe eventually as a majority party.

Trump may not be seeking a vote of confidence from Hamas. But he’s now got it -- and it can only help his peace initiative, however quixotic that may be.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

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