In the Arena

A Meeting with Hamas

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The biggest question in the Middle East peace non-process right now is whether Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President, is more interested in making peace with the Israelis or reconciling with Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza. The Israelis say it must be one or the other.

For the past several years, Abbas — prompted by his reformist Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad — has led an economic renaissance on the West Bank. But his political standing has diminished, especially after memos purporting to describe the Palestinian negotiations with Israel were leaked to al-Jazeera. The leaks were largely unsurprising — the negotiations followed well-worn paths but were seen as major concessions by the Palestinian street. In recent days, Abbas has been hinting that reconciliation with Hamas is his top priority which would effectively kill the peace process and last week he met with a delegation of West Bank Hamas supporters, led by Aziz Dweik, the Speaker of the Palestinian Assembly during the brief time before the violent Hamas coup in Gaza effectively created dual governments.

I met Dweik yesterday in his Hebron office. He was a pleasant, professorial sort, with white hair and goatee, wearing a suit and tie (I wasn’t), and was clearly a representative of the more moderate, non-military wing of Hamas. Indeed, he told me there were divisions within Hamas about whether to reconcile or wait. “Hamas has a higher ceiling for reconciliation than Abbas does,” he said. “They are self-confident. They believe the future is on their side.” I noted that he referred to his own faction as “they,” although his English wasn’t perfect — and my Arabic is nonexistent — so the pronoun may have been insignificant.

Dweik said the meeting with Abbas — his first in “many years” — lasted two hours. Abbas “clarified” several sticking points. He really did want to visit Gaza — he’d said so publicly, but Hamas wasn’t sure if the desire were real — and without preconditions. He said he was willing to re-create a consensus government with Hamas members. Abbas also said he was willing to have a “dialogue” with Hamas — something he has denied before, to assuage the Israelis — but that any dialogue should pick up where the previous status quo between the factions had left off rather than from square one. (I suspect this last part is camouflage: the key point here is that Abbas is willing to start reconciliation talks.) “Abbas said he had told the Israelis, ‘You are my partners [in the peace process], but Hamas are my brothers,’ ” Dweik said.

But Dweik added that Abbas’ gesture wasn’t enough for the Hamas leadership. It wants negotiations first, and a Gaza visit by Abbas only after reconciliation has been achieved. Dweik said he didn’t care which way it happened, but that reconciliation was crucial: “We Palestinians need to be united to be taken seriously in the eyes of the world.”

A Palestinian reconciliation, if it comes, would be a major blow to President Obama’s efforts to achieve Middle East peace. The Palestinian Authority has officially acknowledged Israel’s right to exist; Hamas has not. I asked Dweik about that. He said that Israel has to recognize the right of a fully sovereign Palestinian state to exist within the 1967 borders. “But don’t you have to recognize the right of a Jewish state to exist within the 1967 borders too?” I asked. He smiled and refused to answer the question, repeating what he’d said before.