Hamas Poses Dilemma for Egypt, Jordan

As Hamas struggles to tighten its grip over the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Egypt are seeking ways to weaken the Islamic fundamentalist movement, according to diplomats and policy experts in Washington.

Jordan and Egypt had been highly supportive of the P.A. and its president, the Fatah-aligned Mahmoud Abbas. But, informed observers say, with Hamas in control of the Palestinian legislature and Cabinet, Amman and Cairo are on a collision course with the Palestinian government.

Both countries recently refused to meet with the P.A.’s newly appointed Hamas-linked foreign minister, Mahmoud Zahar, with Amman accusing members of the Palestinian Islamic group of planning terrorist attacks against targets in Jordan.

Jordanian and Egyptian officials are said to fear that the success of Hamas will embolden Islamic fundamentalists in their own countries. Yet, at the same time, they worry that too much opposition to Hamas could produce social and economic instability in the West Bank and Gaza, and do not want to be portrayed as adversaries of a democratically elected Palestinian government.

“The fundamental dilemma for the Jordanian and Egyptian regimes is that Hamas’s failure could destabilize the Palestinian territories even further, but on the other hand, a successful Hamas will strengthen Islamist opposition forces in their own countries,” said Haim Malka, a fellow at the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The likelihood that Hamas’s success in governing the West Bank and Gaza will empower Islamists in neighboring countries “is a major concern of the Egyptian and Jordanian regimes,” Malka said. In both countries, Islamist parties are the chief opposition force, pose a growing threat to the stability of the regime and are believed to have strong relations with Hamas.

Last week, the Jordanian government “indefinitely postponed” a planned visit by Zahar. It did so after accusing Hamas of smuggling “contraband weapons that included rockets, explosives, and automatic rifles” and monitoring “some vital targets in Amman,” according to an official Jordanian government statement. The statement went on to say: “The Jordanian government sees such practices contradict the core of Jordanian-Palestinian relations as the new Palestinian government committed not to using Jordan for any purpose or objectives to harm its security and not to interfering in its internal affairs.

A Jordanian government spokesman said that a group of suspected Hamas militants recently detained in Jordan was operated by Hamas’s leadership in Damascus and has come very close to carrying out terrorist attacks against targets and individuals in Jordan.

Hamas categorically denied all the accusations.

The Jordanian decision to cancel Zahar’s visit was taken one day after Egypt’s foreign minister, Ahmed Abu Gheith, refused to meet with the P.A.’s top diplomat as he toured Arab countries to rally diplomatic and financial support for the new Palestinian government.

In February, shortly after Hamas’s electoral victory, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak bluntly rejected a plea by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (who was on a visit to Cairo) to isolate Hamas. At the time, Mubarak reportedly urged Rice to give Hamas a chance to form a pragmatic government and to chart a pragmatic course. Since then, diplomatic sources in Washington said, Egypt’s position on Hamas has changed.

Although Mubarak still calls for the international community to provide financial aid to the P.A., he is not calling for the international community to embrace the new government.

“Particularly after Hamas publicly endorsed [last week’s] suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, there is very little patience toward Hamas in Cairo,” said a foreign diplomat in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Egypt’s finance minister, Yousef Boutros-Ghali, reportedly said similar things in meetings he held with current and former American diplomats in Washington last week.

Jordan and Egypt, the two Arab countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel, have called on Hamas to endorse the Arab League’s peace plan of 2002, which involves full recognition of and peace with Israel in return for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders. Egypt and Jordan are not conditioning their contact with Hamas on its acceptance of the Arab League plan, but officials in both Cairo and Amman are making it clear to Hamas that it will enjoy only limited support unless it accepts Israel and renounces terrorism.

“The issue for [Jordan’s King] Abdullah and Mubarak is not so much changing Hamas as it is not creating the conditions for it to become a successful alternative to Fatah,” said a Western diplomat in Washington who follows Arab politics. “For both of them, the notion that an Islamist party across the border can take power and effectively rule is a serious threat,” the diplomat said.

That sense of threat, experts say, is shared by other Arab regimes, albeit to a lesser extent.

In an interview with the Forward, the Arab League’s ambassador to Washington, Hussein Hassouna, confirmed that such thinking in Arab capitals “might be in the background.” He emphasized, however, that the Arab League does not support the isolation of Hamas. Instead, he said, the goal should be “to convince the new government to evolve its position [in support of a two-state solution] by engaging them.”

For Jordanian and Egyptian officials, popular support in their countries for the Palestinian population makes it difficult to pressure Hamas, some observers said.

“They are going to have to try to walk a tightrope on this thing, so they are seen as supporting the Palestinian people but not necessarily supporting Hamas,” said Edward Walker, former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. Walker also served as America’s ambassador to Israel.

“It’s a tricky road,” said Walker, who is now president of Washington’s Middle East Institute, “but clearly, they do not want to see [the Hamas government] succeed.”

Since Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in late January, Egyptian and Jordanian diplomats have been urging Washington and its international allies to enhance and support Abbas and to help him bolster his office as a possible link to the international community and as an interlocutor with Israel.

The Bush administration indicated this week that it plans to maintain relations with Abbas and perhaps even to provide him with financial aid. Speaking at the Anti-Defamation League’s national leadership conference in Washington, David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said: “We will keep contact with President Abbas…. We will also keep contact with any organizations that report directly to him or any independent Palestinian entities.” Although the administration has no immediate plans to provide the Palestinian president with direct financial assistance, Welch said, “We have not ruled that out.”

“We may or may not do that, depending on what the proposition is,” Welch said.

Abbas last week condemned the Tel Aviv bombing, which left nine dead and more than 60 wounded. He also attempted to block a controversial Hamas appointment of an arch-terrorist — wanted by Jerusalem — to head a new internal security apparatus. The terrorist, Jamal Abu Samhadana, headed the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza, a coalition of militias that includes Hamas and Fatah. He was appointed last week to a new position, inspector general of the Interior Ministry, apparently in order to command a new Palestinian security force that would fight lawlessness on the Palestinian streets. Abbas immediately vetoed the appointment, but Hamas said that the veto was unconstitutional.

The growing tension between the Palestinian president and the Hamas government turned into conflicting demonstrations, street fights, and shootouts in Gaza between Hamas’s militias and those loyal to Fatah, underscoring the potential for all-out civil war as the conflict between Hamas and Abbas sharpens. Over the weekend, Fatah leaders accused Hamas of courting civil war by accusing Abbas of taking part in a “plot to remove Hamas from power.”

It was an Egyptian government security team that mediated April 22 between representatives of Abbas and a Hamas delegation headed by Prime Minister Ismail Haniya. The meeting produced a joint statement calling on all Palestinians “to cease all acts of friction, which would lead to clashes.” The conflicting sides also agreed on “working jointly to enhance national unity,” according to an official Palestinian press report. But two days later, Abbas stated that he has the constitutional authority to dissolve the government; Hamas reacted by suggesting that it would respond by resuming anti-Israeli terrorism and anti-Fatah subversion.