The new star of Middle Eastern diplomacy is Gaza-based Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh. Most recently visiting Tunisia, he’s also been in Egypt, Sudan, and Turkey, and the itinerary will also include Qatar and Bahrain.
It’s Haniyeh’s first tour of the region since Hamas seized all power in Gaza in 2007. The timing is no coincidence. As Haniyeh himself told a rally in Tunis on Sunday:
Israel no longer has allies in Egypt and in Tunisia, we are saying to the Zionist enemies that times have changed and that the time of the Arab Spring, the time of the revolution, of dignity and of pride has arrived.
A crowd of 5000 men, women, and children in a stadium (another report puts the number much higher), waving PLO, Tunisian, and Hamas flags, responded with chants of “Death to Israel,” “The Tunisian revolution supports Palestine,” and “The army of Muhammad is back.” AP also reports that “At one entrance, people walked over a piece of cloth sporting the Star of David….”
The rally—presumably including the piece of cloth—was organized by Haniyeh’s hosts, the recently elected, ruling Ennahda Party. Ritually called “moderate Islamist” in Western media, its longtime leader Rachid Ghannouchi said in 1994: “We must wage unceasing war against the Americans until they leave the land of Islam, or we will burn and destroy all their interests across the entire Islamic world.”
Haniyeh, for his part, also expounded on the “new Middle East” in an interview to The Independent:
The Palestinian cause is winning. With the Muslim Brotherhood part of the government [in Egypt], they [the Egyptians] will not besiege Gaza. They will not arrest Palestinians. They will not give cover to Israel to launch a war….
Israel is disturbed by this. It knows the strategic environment is changing…. The Palestinians are winning more than anybody else due to what’s happening in the Arab countries. That will come out clearly in the future.
Undeniably, one has to give the Hamas chief some points for his analysis. At the time the “Arab Spring” broke out a year ago, Israeli warnings were at best ignored if not derided. Now, with Islamists prevailing in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, probably Libya, and possibly Syria, it makes perfect sense for a group like Hamas to feel a tailwind and a surge of confidence.
Hamas’s visions, however, go beyond stepped-up warfare against Israel with possible Egyptian and other Islamist support. The group, as revealed in a major new report by Jonathan D. Halevi, also has political ambitions of gaining Western recognition. Given ongoing Western and, particularly, Obama administration friendliness toward the Islamists, it may not be an unreasonable goal.
As Halevi notes: “For Hamas, the central lesson from the Arab Spring is the U.S. administration’s and the European Union’s abandonment of the pro-Western regimes and their readiness, even haste, to support the popular revolutions and recognize the Muslim Brotherhood as a legitimate political actor.” Encouraged, Hamas has been in intensive negotiations with the West Bank Palestinian leadership—now at an advanced stage—on joining the PLO. If that goes according to plan, Hamas believes it “will be internationally recognized and replace Fatah in representing the Palestinian people….”
For now, the U.S. and the EU define Hamas as a terrorist organization and officially shun it. But as I noted already close to three years ago, that has not stopped a bevy of notable Westerners—Tony Blair, Javier Solana, Jimmy Carter, George Soros, James Baker, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Brent Scowcroft, are some—from portraying the movement as essential to peace. (Examples: Blair—“I do think it is important that we find a way of bringing Hamas into [the peace] process”; Carter—“…there’s no way to have peace in the Middle East without Hamas being involved”; Baker—“You have to get Hamas involved, because you cannot negotiate peace with only half the Palestinian polity.”)
Back in the real world, you can see Haniyeh here at Hamas’s twenty-fourth anniversary rally in Gaza on December 14, bellowing to a throng of 350,000 intermittently chanting onlookers that
the armed resistance and the armed struggle are the path and the strategic choice for liberating the Palestinian land, from the [Mediterranean] sea to the [Jordan] river, and for the expulsion of the invaders and usurpers [Israel] from the blessed land of Palestine…. Palestinian reconciliation…cannot come at the expense of [our] principles…. These principles are absolute and cannot be disputed.…We won’t relinquish one inch of the land of Palestine. The involvement of Hamas at any stage with the interim objective of liberation of [only] Gaza, the West Bank, or Jerusalem, does not replace its strategic view concerning Palestine and the land of Palestine.
Israel, then, has to gear up not only for the growing military threat of Hamas’s Gaza enclave but for a possible political-diplomatic offensive as well. The facts about Hamas are available and clear-cut. But they have to be hammered home hard when the will to delusion runs so deep.