Hamas’ Deep Game

These last two weeks seem to have been pretty good ones for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Faced with a direct challenge to his leadership from the Ismail Haniyeh’s Hamas government, he has challenged Hamas to put up or shut up. A group of Fatah and Hamas prisoners came up with the document advocating for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, and Abbas has told Hamas that if it doesn’t accept it, he will take it to a referendum. Hamas now has until Saturday to accept it. This has obviously put the Islamists in a quandary, as evidence by their arguments that a referendum is illegal–a rather strange argument coming from a terrorist group, but one that isn’t implausible (the PA basic law makes no provisions for referenda, so it’s unclear whether it is legal.) The populace will most likely approve the document.

But I think that Hamas is playing a deeper game here. They indeed have a problem, but not the one that the press says they do.

Hamas did not want to take over the PA government–essentially, it was forced to when it won the parliamentary elections in January. It’s task now is how to get out of this mess, and the referendum may give it the opportunity.

Hamas has threatened to boycott the plebescite, which would virtually ensure its success. But that is exactly what Hamas wants. A successful plebescite would be read as a vote of no-confidence, “forcing” the government to resign. New elections would most likely result in a victory for Fatah, putting Hamas back in the opposition–exactly where it wants to be.

Islamists don’t want responsibility: they want absolute power. They don’t want the headaches of arranging to pay thousands of civil servants. They would prefer to criticize and build their credentials as radical revolutionaries, which they can’t do in the current situation. They certainly don’t want to share power with the likes of Abbas.

Hamas’ task, then, is to get out of the government without suffering an embarrassing electoral loss. I suspect that they are now debating ways to lose the plebescite but being able to spin it as some sort of western-Israeli-Fatah conspiracy.

Ha’aretz superb political correspondent, Danny Rubenstein, accurately points out that Fatah and Hamas have 40 days to work out a face-saving compromise for both sides because that is the date scheduled for the referendum to take place. Perhaps he is right, but there is another possibility here: Hamas will tell its supporters to boycott the elections, and use subtle means to stop people from going to the polls. Even if the referendum is passed, Hamas will point to lower turnouts to show that the people don’t really support it, and then angrily resign as the victims of a corrupt process.

Abbas will get what he wants: a Fatah government. But Hamas will get it what it wants, too: the ability to build itself for an eventual Islamist takeover of the territories without having the responsibility for Fatah failures. It turns out that the Middle East isn’t a zero-sum game after all.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

5 thoughts on “Hamas’ Deep Game”

  1. Is this Martin Peretz doing a guest editorial, or what?
    "Islamists don't want responsibility: they want absolute power. "
    Geez, unlike every other political group in the world, which welcomed the headaces along with the glory.

  2. I don't see how Hamas' alleged strategy can work. There is likely a majority of Palestinians who support the Fatah position of negotiating with Israel. Hamas was able to swing enough voters over to their side with promises that they would run the government in a less corrupt fashion than Fatah. It wasn't their hard-line against Israel that moved those voters, though Hamas' base surely supports that. And as noted in the post, the Abbas referendum is likely to pass.
    Thus, if Hamas gives up its responsibility to run the government, they will take a hit as not delivering on their campaign promises to eradicate Fatah corruption or even to try to do so. And Hamas will be left with its base, which is never going to be enough to win an election without some swing voters on "good government" issues. Seems to me that Hamas' only hope is to try to deliver on its promises to run a cleaner government.
    (I might add that I would suspect that Abbas' recent moves are probably fairly popular in Israel, and that if he regained full power, the Olmert government would restart negotiations with him.)

  3. Can anyone here point me to a good summary of how the PA government is structured? I gather from this post that the system is parliamentary, in the sense that a vote of no confidence can happen at any time, forcing the formation of a new government, but resembles the US in that Abbas remained in power when his party lost the legislative majority.

  4. David–
    It actually resembles the French government more than anything else (one more reason for conservatives to hate the PA!): there is an elected President, but there is also a Prime Minister who is head of the government. No–it isn't clear exactly who does what. Remember that the Prime Minister system was put in when the US was attempting to marginalize Arafat. Now, Abbas is President and Hamas is the government, so the US is trying to reinforce presidential power.
    I'd recommend taking a look at the PA Basic Law, which I linked to in the post. It isn't ridiculously long, and sets forth things about as clearly as we've got right now.

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