Speaking to a delegation of American doctors visiting the Gaza Strip on October 29, Hamas Prime Minister Esmail Haniya acknowledged an "optimistic mood" in the region, thanks to the Obama Administration.
He commended "Obama's new language" and called for direct dialogue between Hamas and the US — words that sent shockwaves throughout the upper echelons of power in the Fatah-controlled West Bank.
Haniya added, "We are for peace [with the Israelis], not against it," adding that the Palestinians are looking for "real support" from Obama.
These strong words — a U-turn on the behalf of Hamas — came shortly after the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) of President Mahmoud Abbas unilaterally announced that it will be holding nationwide elections on January 24, 2010, angering the Hamas leadership that called them "illegal and unconstitutional".
Hamas argued that no elections can be held before reconciliation is achieved, noting that Abbas has "no right to issue any decree concerning the elections" given that his presidential tenure expired in January 2009. Haniya's Interior Ministry said that it would prevent the elections in Gaza, whether presidential or legislative, and prohibit the Central Elections Committee (CES) from preparing for the ballots in the enclave.
Haniya is clearly trying to market himself and his party as new interlocutors for the United States in the Occupied Territories. He believes that after the Goldstone Report scandal, which turned Palestinian public opinion against Abbas, Fatah's ability to unify its rank and consolidate its power is shrinking to comically low levels.
Although still an unspoken truth, many powers in the West — the US included — have concluded that Abbas and his team can no longer deliver, neither on nation-building nor on peace, and have lost what remains of the credibility bequeathed to them by Yasser Arafat. If the US wants to reach any solution on the Palestine-Israeli conflict, it has to engage directly with Hamas.
The scenario clear in Haniya's mind is that of Arafat's 1987 dialogue with the United States, which he hopes to repeat with Obama. After decades of being treated as an outlaw and terrorist, Arafat had been eager to open direct contact with the incoming administration of Ronald Reagan. He agreed to deliver a speech the Americans dictated to him, via George Shultz, at a UN meeting in Geneva, denouncing all kinds of terrorism as a condition for engagement between Fatah and the US.
Arafat accepted (yet due to poor English, used the word ‘tourism' instead of ‘terrorism'). Four hours later, unable to ignore his U-turn, the US announced that it was ready for talks with Yasser Arafat.
On December 15, the next day, the first US-Palestinian meeting took place between the US ambassador to Tunisia and the PLO. It was a public relations success for Arafat and, eventually, led to Oslo in 1993.
Hamas hopes that by stating its willingness to engage with the US, just like Arafat did 22 years ago, someone as pragmatic as Obama will jump at the opportunity to engage with Hamas. Obama, after all, has no historic commitment to Fatah, and judges leaders by what they are worth — how beneficial they are to world progress and regional development. For the past 10 months, Abbas has been unable to protect or advance his people's interests of peace, nor those of the United States in the Middle East.
What Haniya was saying was: "Ditch Abbas and come deal with us, instead, as the legitimate representatives of the Palestinians. You can do business with us and we are both ready and willing to sit down and talk with the US."
It is a big departure for a man who not only refused to deal with the US but also sought to restore all of the 1948 areas to Palestinians and entirely destroy the state of Israel. Haniya is the face of a Hamas that has become wiser with age, more pragmatic in its outreach thanks to the trappings of power.
Hamas leaders want to be recognised as statesmen, rather than guerrilla fighters, and nothing would grant them de facto recognition in Gaza better than direct talks with the United States.
If dialogue and peace are the price for recognition, then this is a price Hamas is, seemingly, now willing to pay.
One stumbling block to Hamas' agenda, however, would be the upcoming elections called for by Abbas. If they do happen, and Fatah wins the ballots in the West Bank, it would be very difficult for the US to take up Haniya's offer — regardless of how attractive it may seem. If Fatah wins, it would get the constitutional umbrella it needs for another term in power, which would last until Obama's first term expires in 2013, drowning the agenda of Haniya.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.