News from the West Bank that Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is "seriously considering" a visit to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip is the finest story coming out of the Occupied Territories in years. Abbas' decision came after Hamas Interior Minister Fat'hi Hammad invited him last week for reconciliation talks in Gaza. Abbas might be accompanied by Aziz Dweik, speaker of the Palestinian Parliament, who was quoted as saying: "We miss Gaza and our beloved people there."
Reconciliation, which has been encouraged by regional heavyweights such as Syria and Egypt, has seemed likely since mid-May, when Hamas and Fatah shared a platform at a massive rally in Gaza to mark the 62nd anniversary of the 1948 Nakba. Influential Palestinian businessman Munib Al Masri, who has been heavily involved in the reconciliation talks, added: "The coming days may result in a positive outcome."
Hamas chief Khalid Mesha'al, speaking from Damascus, said that his party had no problem with the United States, so long as Palestinian interests were safeguarded in the Middle East. Not only is Hamas now willing to sort out its differences with Fatah, but also with the US itself. Earlier Hamas had agreed to abide by the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which calls for collective recognition of Israel by member states in the Arab League, in exchange for complete withdrawal from all Arab land occupied in 1967. Hamas Prime Minister Esmail Haniya had earlier said that his party had no problem with the US, was willing to accept US sponsorship of serious peace talks, and was optimistic about the Obama administration if it helped put a stop to colony construction in the Occupied Territories, ended the siege of Gaza and supported the creation of a Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital. Haniya and Mesha'al, whose party had for years refused to accept a US role in the region, have seemingly had a change of heart.
Hamas has clearly been getting plenty of advice from Damascus, since the party has never before shown so much lenience and political awareness. That advice must have been: If you want to survive in the complex web of the Middle East, you have to learn the rules of pragmatism — by heart — while, nevertheless continuing to abide by your convictions when it comes to the resistance. One of those rules is to play the game of time with the United States. Fatah did it 20 years ago, waiting for the US to use up every possible solution on the table, until it became clear that nobody else but Fatah could deliver peace and security to the Palestinians.
The question on everybody's lips, however, is whether the US will grasp the hand extended by Hamas.
During a forum in Doha on Al Jazeera TV last week, a Hamas member, Osama Hamdan, debated Palestinian-US relations with Rob Malley of the International Crisis Group (who is close to the Obama administration) and Mark Perry, a veteran writer described as having "excellent sources" in the US military. Perry predicted that one day a US envoy will come knocking on the door of Mesha'al. Reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, however, according to Mesha'al, has to date been obstructed "by an American veto". Mesha'al added that his party wanted to engage in "open dialogue" with the international community "without preconditions". Echoing a line famously uttered by Yasser Arafat at the UN in 1974, when he said he had raised an "olive branch and the freedom fighter's gun", Mesha'al quickly added, "It is necessary for us to keep our hands on our rifles; resistance is our only defence! It is our right!"
The Israelis are unimpressed with Mesha'al's new language, and furious at the prospect of reconciliation. According to Haaretz military correspondent Amos Harel, the Israeli army is preparing for a new war this summer with Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria. To raise tension and drown out any talk of a breakthrough, Israel has launched a massive air raid exercise to test the readiness of its military. This means that success depends on committed US diplomacy. War after all would only radicalise Hamas and other groups in the Middle East. We need the Obama administration to swallow its pride, talk to Hamas and help bridge the gap between it and Fatah. Abbas is apparently ready, as are Haniya and Mesha'al.
In an interview last week, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad put it best, saying: "If you [the Americans] help them, they can be unified. Without unification you cannot have peace". When asked if Hamas was willing to pursue a more pragmatic approach to achieve results, Al Assad, who has excellent relations with the Palestinian resistance, added, "What I know publicly now is that they talked about the two-state solution, and they talked about the line of 1967. What do you conclude? We can conclude that they are ready".
- Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.