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29
Aug
2016

Egypt and Jordan Fear a Hamas Victory in the West Bank


King Abdullah of Jordan led a large delegation to Cairo on August 24. There he met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to discuss the situation in Syria and Iraq, the danger of Islamic State terror, the U.S. presidential elections, and other developments in the Middle East.

Naturally, another main topic of their talks was the Palestinian arena and particularly the municipal elections slated for October 8, 2016, in the West Bank and Gaza.

Egypt's President Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi (right) greets King Abdullah II of Jordan

Egypt’s President Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi (right) greets King Abdullah II of Jordan
(Photo Courtesy of Egypt’s Presidency)

Jordan supports the Egyptian initiative to convene talks between Israel and the Palestinians and, according to Jordanian sources, Abdullah believes that only Egypt is capable of reconciling rival Palestinian factions within the dominant Fatah organization. That, in turn, is a condition for the Egyptian initiative’s success; it would enable the Palestinians to present a unified diplomatic position in future negotiations with Israel.

What concerned el-Sisi and Abdullah in their meeting, however, was that Hamas might win the upcoming local elections, meaning that its power would spread from Gaza to the West Bank as well.

Given Hamas’ ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, where its political arm, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), is a serious opposition force, the strengthening of Hamas in the West Bank could have dangerous implications for the Hashemite Kingdom’s stability where elections are scheduled for September 20, 2016.

Hamas Represents a Danger to Both Countries

On August 27, the newspaper Rai al-Youm reported that Jordan had rejected messages conveyed by Khaled Mashal, chairman of Hamas’ Political Bureau, that were meant to soften its stance toward Hamas in the context of the local elections in the territories.

Egypt, too, fears the possible strengthening of Hamas, which has become an important regional force that also cooperates with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, with the Islamic State in northern Sinai, and with Turkey and Qatar. All of these actors are working to overthrow the current Egyptian government. 

The main reason to fear the strengthening of Hamas and its possible victory in the West Bank local elections is the deep division within the Fatah organization and, particularly, the unbridgeable disputes between the faction headed by Muhammad Dahlan and the one headed by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

From a previous era: Mahmoud Abbas flanked by Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh (left) and Mohammed Dahlan

Once upon a time (2007): Abbas (center), Dahlan (right), and Hamas’ Ismail Haniya

Hence, in an extremely irregular fashion, el-Sisi and Abdullah issued a joint statement on the importance of the Palestinian problem and the need to achieve unity and resolve the disputes within Fatah itself.

The statement reflects the Egyptian-Jordanian order of priorities: first reconciliation within Fatah and only afterward reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. The statement indeed called on Abbas to mend fences with his bitter rival Dahlan so that Fatah can run in the elections in a unified form and prevent a Hamas victory.

This is not the first time el-Sisi has asked Abbas to patch up his differences with Dahlan. He has also done so several times in the past but was rebuffed because the Fatah Central Committee opposes reconciliation.

This time, King Abdullah has added his voice to the demand. Dahlan, who resides today in Dubai, has good relations with both el-Sisi and Abdullah, and both of them would like to see him as PA chairman after the 81-year old Abbas retires from political life.

Mahmoud Abbas’ Double Game

Abbas’ response to the joint statement of the president of Egypt and the king of Jordan was to issue a statement of the Fatah Central Committee with a similar message. It calls for the unification of all members of the movement under the Fatah umbrella, “in a way that will serve the Palestinian problem and the overall Palestinian situation in light of the delicate stage at which the Palestinian problem exists at the moment, a reality that requires the unification of the ranks….”

Muhammad Dahlan’s associates, headed by his right-hand man Samir al-Masharawi, welcomed both the joint statement of el-Sisi and Abdullah and the statement of the Fatah Central Committee. They emphasized that Dahlan has announced his support for any list that runs in the elections under the Fatah rubric since he is loyal to the movement and its unity despite having been expelled from it in 2011.

Indeed, Dahlan again reached out to Abbas in an effort to reconcile with him. That move will likely boost Fatah’s public status and improve its electoral chances at least in the West Bank, where Hamas does not rule and has no way of forging the election results.

It quickly emerged, however, that the statement of the Abbas-led Fatah Central Committee was no more than lip service. The PA chairman has no intention to reconcile with his enemy Muhammad Dahlan.

On August 25, 2016, the newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi reported that Abbas was working to improve his relations with Jordan and that in his recent meetings there he called his ties with the Jordanian leadership “excellent” and says “he does not hide anything from King Abdullah.”

Abbas’ relations with el-Sisi are tense because of Abbas’ opposition to the Egyptian initiative and refusal to bury the hatchet with Dahlan.

The statement of the Fatah Central Committee could be aimed at placating el-Sisi and Abdullah. In reality, though, nothing has changed and Abbas remains determined to hold the elections notwithstanding Fatah’s weakness and calls by senior members of the movement to postpone them.

Where Are Things Headed?

As the date of the elections approaches, the tension on the ground is growing. The Fatah-Hamas propaganda war is intensifying as well.

One of Hamas’ websites has posted assertions attributed to Tufik Tirawi, a member of the Fatah Central Committee, that the tension between Dahlan supporters and Abbas supporters will keep mounting to the point of bloodshed, and that the PA chairman will create incidents to forestall the elections. Tirani, however, hastily issued a denial.

Yet, even if the assertions were not made, they reflect the prevailing atmosphere and apprehensions.

Such scenarios are certainly possible; in Palestinian politics everything is possible. Abbas is having a hard time overcoming his personal sentiments and his hatred for Dahlan – whom, back when he was his associate – was loved like one of his sons until their relations soured.

If in the coming weeks, no real change occurs in Abbas’ disposition toward the elections issue or toward reconciling with Dahlan, it appears that Hamas’ chances to win the elections will indeed be increasing.

About Yoni Ben Menachem

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
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