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Mahmoud Abbas and Iran

  • The reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas makes Mahmoud Abbas a de facto ally of Iran and Hizbullah.
  • Abbas is vacillating, but ultimately he cannot give up his affiliation with the Sunni camp led by Saudi Arabia and his relationship with the United States.

Since winning Hamas’ internal elections a few months ago, the organization’s new leaders have been rebuilding ties with Iran and Hizbullah.

Ali Akbar Velayati and Saleh al-Arouri

Sitting at the head of the table: Ali Akbar Velayati, (left) a senior adviser to Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, and Deputy Head of Hamas’ Political Bureau Saleh al-Arouri meet in Tehran on October 21, 2017. (Photo by Tasnim news agency)

Saleh al-Arouri, deputy chairman of Hamas’ Political Bureau, has established a Hamas stronghold in Lebanon, settling with his followers in the Dahiya neighborhood of Beirut under the patronage of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Al-Arouri has led Hamas delegations on Tehran visits.

The other Hamas leaders, Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar, are also awaiting the right opportunity to leave Gaza for a visit to Tehran. According to Hamas sources, Sinwar, who is also commander of the organization’s military wing, is the instigator of the renewed romance with Iran, while also leading the strategy to tighten ties with Egypt so that it will ease the blockade on Gaza.

At Sinwar’s urging, Hizbullah has also begun mediation between the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad and the new Hamas leadership. The aim is to reach a reconciliation after the cutoff of ties, which has lasted from 2011 to the present, and to reopen Hamas’ office in Damascus.

The fact that Iran supports the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement – as al-Arouri asserted after his latest visit to Tehran – should be very concerning to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. If the agreement is good for Hamas and for Iran, it is a sign that it is very bad for the PA and its leader.

The Friend of My Friend Is My De-facto Friend

Abbas’ consent to reconcile with Hamas despite its growing ties with Iran and Hizbullah makes him a de facto partner in the new radical axis. The establishment of a new Palestinian government that would include Hamas ministers directly linked to Hizbullah and Iran would be very dangerous for the PA.

Whoever lives with poisonous snakes must realize that he will be bitten in the end. One cannot talk of a political settlement with Israel and at the same time embrace political partners who call for Israel’s destruction and seek to take over the West Bank and oust the PA government.   

Abbas is trying to square the circle and gain time. He needs to make a bold decision and present Hamas with new conditions for continuing the reconciliation talks, primarily an end to the rapprochement with Iran and Hizbullah.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stated conditions for accepting the Palestinian reconciliation agreement include putting a stop to Hamas’ ties with Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s Demand to Abbas

According to information conveyed by a senior Palestinian source to Al-Khaleej Online on November 14, 2017, during Abbas’ visit to Riyadh the Saudis promised large-scale financial support to the PA and help with rehabilitating Gaza if Abbas can pry Hamas and Islamic Jihad away from Iran.

So far, the PA under Abbas’ leadership has settled in the moderate Sunni camp, which opposes Iran’s expansionist policy in the Middle East. The PA’s reconciliation process with Hamas, however, puts it exactly on the line between the two camps like someone trying to dance at two weddings.

The Trump administration, in cooperation with the Saudi-led Sunni camp, is leading a regional policy to counteract Iran. The fact that President Trump called Hamas a “terrorist organization” at the Riyadh summit has not deterred Abbas from continuing his reconciliation talks with Hamas.

Israel and the United States cannot make Hamas more moderate. They must demand of Abbas, however, that he not give in to Hamas and that he insist on its disarmament in Gaza.

President Donald Trump and President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas

President Donald Trump and President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas shakes hands as they meet, Wednesday, May 3, 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C.
(Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Abbas still has not lifted the sanctions on Gaza and he has further means to pressure Hamas, which wants to get rid of civic responsibility for Gaza’s residents so that it can focus on improving the military capabilities of the “resistance movement.”

Hamas’ strategy contravenes the PA’s interests, and the onus is on Abbas to thwart Hamas’ dangerous plans.

Waiting for the American Initiative

The whole region is waiting for the Trump administration’s new plan to jumpstart a diplomatic process that will lead to stability. Hamas and Iran, however, have already agreed to work together to foil the plan.

Egypt, which initiated the Palestinian internal reconciliation process, is likewise ignoring Hamas’ relationship with Iran. Concerned only about its own security interests, Egypt wants Hamas to keep helping it fight ISIS terror in Sinai, as well as the radical Salafi organizations in Gaza that are loyal to the Islamic State.

Abbas cannot keep vacillating for long. He will have to decide whether to remain in the moderate Sunni camp or to forge a political alliance with Hamas even though it is closely linked to Iran and Hizbullah. Assessments in Fatah are that he will not be able to cut ties with Saudi Arabia and the United States in favor of an alliance with Hamas.

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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