The Arab Spring: How not to cope with political climate change in the Middle East

Palestinian reconciliation may sound good, but the truth is that it means legitimizing a group that hails Osama bin Laden as an “Arab holy warrior.”

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Petra Marquardt-Bigman
On 3 May 2011 10:15

Reacting to the announcement of a Palestinian reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas last week, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton issued a statement that acknowledged the need to “study the detail of this agreement and discuss with colleagues in the EU and in the region.”

However, the statement also seemed to imply the expectation that the Palestinian move was in line with European calls “for peace and reconciliation, under the authority of President Abbas, leading to an end to the division between the West Bank and Gaza and in support of greater security and stability across the region.”

Notably absent from Ashton’s statement was any reference to the conditions set out by the Mideast Quartet (i.e. the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations) in January 2006 that required Hamas to commit to non-violence, accept existing agreements and recognize Israel.

But Hamas – like most other Palestinian groups – takes great pride in its “steadfastness,” and there is no denying that it has indeed been steadfast in rejecting the Quartet’s conditions. In recent comments on the reconciliation agreement, the Deputy Head of the Hamas Political Bureau Moussa Abu Marzouq declared confidently that “the Quartet has become obsolete, along with its terms, and it is not taken too much into consideration".

Marzouq’s statement was echoed by the “foreign minister” of Hamas, Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, who also emphasized: “Our perspective is entirely different from that of Fatah. Fatah believes in negotiations, while we believe that negotiations with the Israeli enemy are in vain. We believe in armed struggle, in addition to responsible governing, as well as making the government’s resources available to the resistance.”

The extent to which Hamas really does “believe in armed struggle” was starkly illustrated by the group’s official reaction to the news of Osama bin Laden’s death: Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh condemned “the assassination and the killing of an Arab holy warrior,” adding: “We ask God to offer him mercy with the true believers and the martyrs.”

Over the past few years, this kind of “steadfastness” has paid off nicely for Hamas, since there have been already countless calls to do away with the Quartet’s conditions in order to engage with the group.

As far as the current plans for Palestinian “reconciliation” are concerned, proponents of the notion that Hamas should be rewarded for rejecting peace negotiations and for vowing to continue “armed struggle” need not worry: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has already offered a basketful of fig leaves by asserting that the prospective unity government would have nothing to do with negotiations.

According to Abbas, he and the PLO “would maintain responsibility for the peace process with Israel and the PA’s external relations.” Reportedly, Abbas also assured foreign diplomats “that the unity agreement would enhance the chances for peace in the Middle East.”

Given the current turmoil in the region, one could obviously question whether it makes any sense to continue the chase after the elusive “chances for peace” in the Middle East at all.

But debates about this question won’t necessarily be decided by rational arguments, as Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul recently demonstrated in the New York Times. According to Gul, the future of the region – either “democracy and peace,” or, once again, only “tyranny and conflict” – depends “on forging a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and a broader Israeli-Arab peace.” Gul also emphasized that it is “Israel, more than any other country, [that] will need to adapt to the new political climate in the region.”

It is worthwhile asking what exactly Gul has in mind when he refers to the Middle East’s “new political climate.” Ostensibly, this could simply be a reference to more democratic forms of government, but given the fact that Turkey is governed by the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), it is hardly far-fetched to conclude that Gul is among those who expect the ascendance of fellow Islamists in Arab countries.

While it remains to be seen what the consequences of such a development will be, Gul’s view that Israel – and presumably other countries, too – will need “to adapt” to the increasing power of Islamists is arguably rather revealing. The idea seems to be that the Islamists will create the “climate”, and everyone else will have little choice but to “adapt.”

This “adapt-or-else” message may seem unappealing, but Hamas has already proved that it works: the group can mock the Quartet as irrelevant, repeat its rejection of peace negotiations, affirm its enduring commitment to violence and extol bin Laden as “an Arab holy warrior” – and expect at the same time that many influential voices will argue that Hamas needs to be accepted on its own terms. Inevitably, this sends the message that Islamist rejectionism, militancy and terrorism pays.

It should be obvious that sending such a message won’t enhance the chances for peace in the Middle East, and it won’t improve the region’s political climate.

Indeed, the notion that a group that mourns bin Laden as “an Arab holy warrior” should be embraced as a peace partner can only appeal to people who don’t (want to) understand the difference between peace and appeasement. For obvious reasons, Israel can’t afford to be oblivious to this difference, and it is worthwhile recalling that just a few weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a CNN interview: “Can you imagine a peace deal with Al Qaeda? Of course not. […] What am I going to negotiate with them? The method of our decapitation? The method of their exterminating us? Of course not.”

Petra Marquardt-Bigman is an Israel-based freelance writer and researcher with a Ph.D. in contemporary history. She blogs at the Jerusalem Post

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