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As Israelis and Palestinians Talk, the Rise of a Political Islam Alters the Equation
Ethan Bronner ("The New York Times," January 3, 2012)

Jerusalem, Israel - Israeli and Palestinian officials met in Amman, Jordan, on Tuesday, their first encounter in more than a year, and while little emerged, the meeting said a great deal about the crossroads facing the Palestinians — and the entire Middle East — as political Islam emerges as a potentially transformative force in the region.

While officials of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority and the Israelis were meeting under the auspices of King Abdullah II of Jordan, who enjoys Western backing, the Hamas prime minister of Gaza, Ismail Haniya, was in Turkey dismissing the session and expressing his movement’s solidarity with what he called “the Islamic spring.”

Mr. Haniya’s point was that the upheaval in the Middle East had led to the emergence of political Islam. That, in turn, could create difficult choices for the Palestinians, as well as for the Jordanians and the Israelis, that could unite — or divide — them.

“All three parties are very much concerned with the rise of Islamism, and that is part of what this meeting was about,” said Zakaria al-Qaq, a political scientist at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem.

Dore Gold, the president of the conservative Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former ambassador and adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said he saw in the meeting “a set of interests coalescing.” President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority “has lost his Egyptian backing because of the fall of Hosni Mubarak, so is turning to Jordan,” Mr. Gold said. “King Abdullah would like to see Israeli-Palestinian relations more stabilized, and Israel would like to revive dialogue with the Palestinians and strengthen King Abdullah.”

A critical question is what kind of political Islam is emerging. There are indications in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, as well as within Hamas itself, that it is more pragmatic than when it was merely a force of opposition. Khaled Meshal, the exiled leader of Hamas, has expressed a willingness to work with Mr. Abbas in a far more accommodating way than in the past, especially in the area of using nonviolence to oppose Israel.

“There is a historic development by Hamas in the last two months,” asserted Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the director of a Palestinian research group in Jerusalem. “It is going through the same process as the Muslim Brotherhood elsewhere. The new political Islam is practical and realistic.”

Israeli and American officials are skeptical of such a view. At the same time, Mr. Abdul Hadi said, the Hamas leaders in Gaza itself are less interested in accommodation with Fatah, suggesting a struggle ahead within the movement. He said that the Palestinian Authority’s goal was to get Jordan’s help in facing Israel, especially in the matters of borders and Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This was a role played in the past by Egypt, now consumed with its own revolution. Its relations with Israel have frayed.

Nonetheless, attendance at the Jordan meeting was highly unpopular in the West Bank and Gaza, where it was viewed as caving in to Israel, which has refused to stop building settlements. Mr. Abbas, aware of the discontent, said Tuesday that he was considering “harsh measures” toward Israel if talks went nowhere by the end of the month.

The Palestinian strategy has been to internationalize the conflict, seeking to sanction Israel through the United Nations and legal forums. Representatives of the quartet — the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — were also in Jordan to urge the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators forward in efforts to create a Palestinian state. In late September, they said the sides should take four months to come up with proposals on borders and security. The Palestinians submitted their ideas and said the end of January was the deadline. The Israelis said the clock would begin ticking only when the two sides sat together.

Given the clear prospect of failure, it might seem odd that Jordan risked its prestige to set up the meeting. But as a Jordanian official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the talks, put it, “The king sees it as win-win if Jordan tries and is at least seen to be doing something.”

A senior Israeli official, who also requested anonymity, said that the exiled Hamas leaders, now in Damascus, Syria, were looking for a new home because of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. One possibility is Amman. Similarly, the Israeli official said that Qatar had offered Jordan enticements to accept the Hamas leaders. But King Abdullah turned down the offer.

The king’s decision stems partly from his own difficulties with Islamists in Jordan and concern for the stability of his rule should their power grow.

In theory then, Israel’s and Jordan’s interests overlap. Both would like to encourage secular Palestinian nationalism and have it focused on the West Bank and Gaza so that it is not focused on either of their states. Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister known for his hard-line approach, said recently that it was a mistake for Israelis to suggest — as some on the right have — that Jordan, which is more than half Palestinian, should be the future state of Palestine.

But the Israelis say they have competing interests that prevent them from yielding territory now to a future Palestinian state. In particular, they say, every time they have withdrawn from land — from southern Lebanon in 2000, from Gaza in 2005 — Islamist forces hostile to Israel have taken power. The Sinai, yielded to Egypt in 1982, is now becoming another area of instability dominated by anti-Israel and Islamist forces. Given the rise of Islamism more widely, another territorial concession without ironclad security guarantees makes no sense, the Netanyahu government says.

In fact, Israeli security chiefs are warning that the country faces severe challenges on multiple fronts. On Monday, the office of Defense Minister Ehud Barak quoted him as having told members of Parliament: “The Sinai could turn into a greenhouse for the flourishing of terror groups. In the north, there could be potential ramifications from Syria in the Golan Heights and indeed in wider territories as a result of Assad losing control.”

Such predictions are partly an effort to prevent cuts in the defense budget in the face of demands for a shift in priorities in the wake of the summer’s social justice protests.

The issue is not merely strategic but ideological and political, perhaps the hardest to overcome. Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition is dominated by parties and politicians that favor Israeli settlements in the West Bank and are highly skeptical about — if not outright hostile to — a Palestinian state.


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