Local priorities

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Whether those supporting the moderate leadership of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas admit it or not, Hamas appears to have won. Now, before Islamists around the world start celebrating, it is important to note that the region, let alone the world, is far from embracing hard-line fundamentalists. Hamas, for the record, has made some important ideological and practical changes, the most important of which was the "tahdiya" (ceasefire-like quiet).

The signs of Hamas’ victory can be seen all over. From the success of the siege-breaking peace boats to the partial opening of the Rafah crossing with Egypt and the serious talks Hamas leaders are holding with Egyptian and Jordanian intelligence chiefs.

Part of the reason for Hamas’ success is the fact that the region and the world have little choice but to accept the reality that emerged in February 2006 and that Hamas in June 2007, with its takeover of Gaza, served notice was not going away.

Another reason is global and regional changes. The Russian-Georgian struggle exposed Washington’s geopolitical weakness, a result of its military overstretch in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also comes at a time when George. W. Bush, a president with the lowest approval ratings in decades, seems to have blinked. America is near agreement on a timetable for a withdrawal from Iraq and Washington clearly lacks the stomach for a confrontation with Tehran. The Iranians have called Bush’s bluff and seem to have succeeded.

Israel too has blinked. To its north, Israel has been incapable of preventing Hizballah from re-arming, while Tel Aviv consented to a prisoner swap not long ago that clearly favored the Shi’ite group. The Lebanese national unity government, meanwhile, is yet another sign that hard-line rejectionist regional and international positions are not producing results.

Politically things are stalled. Israelis are now preoccupied with elections for a new leader of Kadima and will soon enter what promises to be a long-winded coalition-building process. The Americans too are busy with their presidential elections, and Palestinians are due to face presidential elections in January and could well face parliamentary elections as well.

In this shifting strategic landscape, Jordan and Egypt–staunch US allies that they are–have nevertheless shown enough independence to begin to tango with the Palestinian Islamists. If Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, considers the Lebanese unity government (a Hizballah victory) a good thing and if she backs the release of Palestinian prisoners accused of killing Israelis, she certainly can’t stop Jordanian intelligence from reaching agreements on ground rules with the Islamists.

Hamas has clearly made some important politically moderating decisions and ideological and practical calls, yet the group is still far from gaining legitimacy in the region. Such legitimacy will only be delayed by actions such as the recent round up of Fateh leaders in Gaza and the banning of Ramallah-based Palestinian publications.

But changes in the Middle East are palpable at different levels. Regionally, it seems clear that little major change is going to take place. Perhaps Syria will move slightly to the pro-US camp but not by much. Within each country, however, the region is still very volatile. The information revolution coupled with the large percentage of young people in the Arab world dictate to all leaders the need for new and more inclusive strategies.

Such new strategies will require groups like Hamas to be much more careful in their actions than in the past, and Hamas will pay close attention to the example of Hizballah. There is currently a very clear offer on the table by Arab countries vis-a-vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. If Hamas moderates its views, its rhetoric and, most importantly, its actions to accommodate said offer, the Islamist group will find a much more welcoming Arab leadership than it might have found in the past.

Leaders of Jordan and Egypt understand that they can’t blindly follow the policies of a discredited American government and a failed Israeli leader to break the Islamists. They say all politics is local in America. The local angle is also important here.

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Republished with the courtesy of BitterLemons-International.org

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