When Hamas and Jordan Talk

 Jordan is the great survivor in the Arab World, so when it starts shuffling its diplomatic cards, it means there is something going on worth watching. More specifically, when the Jordanian Intelligence Department chief holds political talks with a top Hamas official — as just happened — we should anticipate important changes ahead in the Arab world.

This is not a purely bilateral or local matter. It suggests that both are looking out for their own best interests, by making preliminary moves to adjust to changing circumstances in the region. Also, when the director of intelligence does politics, it signals that whatever is going on is worth watching.

The Jordanians threw Hamas out of the country a few years ago soon after King Abdullah II assumed office, and ever since then two major trends have defined their ties. The first is that Jordan has seen Hamas (and Hezbollah) as significant strategic threats because of their close ties with Iran. At one point a few years ago I heard from senior officials in Amman that they feared Hamas and Hezbollah would fire rockets and attack Jordanian targets in retaliation for any possible Israeli attack against Iran. For several years now, Jordanian officials would tell anyone who cared to hear that Iran and its friends were a huge strategic threat to the entire region.

That struck me as rather far-fetched, reflecting a highly exaggerated Jordanian perception of a threat from the Iran-Hamas-Hezbollah trio. That exaggeration was probably a result of Jordan being influenced too much by Israeli and American views — both of which are deeply flawed because of their almost total lack of contact with or deep knowledge of what Iran-Hamas-Hezbollah and their friends stand for — or aim to achieve.

The second Jordanian policy was to side firmly and operationally with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his political showdown with Hamas in Palestine. Jordan has provided Abbas political support and significant security assistance. It also gave him the illusion of major Arab support in the battle against Hamas. As in fearing Iran and allies, in this policy Jordan was heavily constrained by its heavy dependence on the United States for financial aid and security support.

Reliance on Western support has been one of the bedrocks of Jordan”s success as a state since its independence in the middle of the last century. The policy is often unpopular with Arab nationalist, Islamist and leftist circles, but it has worked well and served Jordanians handsomely, making the country one of the most stable and rational in the Arab world.

These two principles, defining Jordan”s attitude to Hamas in recent years, today seem weak, if not total failures. The need for an adjustment in Amman”s policy probably reflects the realization that pursuing failed policies is a foolish way to behave. Resuming normal ties with Hamas is a dramatic change of policy, but drama to preserve Jordan”s security and stability seems much preferable to a failed strategy of siding with Israel and the United States against the obviously strong and growing Islamist forces in the region.

Jordan”s reconsideration of relations with Hamas may also hint at underlying changes in Palestine and in the Hamas-Syrian-Hezbollah-Iran camp. In Palestine, Abbas has fared badly in his domestic struggle against Hamas, and simultaneously he has not achieved any breakthrough in his American-backed peace negotiations with Israel. The likelihood is that Hamas will do well in upcoming elections for parliament, and perhaps even for president, in the Palestinian territories.

The Jordanian monarchy, government and intelligence service do not operate by hunches alone. They have excellent insights into sentiments in their and surrounding societies, by a combination of good intelligence sources and regular quality polling. Unlike Israeli and American officials who are mostly ignorant of trends in large swaths of the Arab world, the Jordanians have their ear to the ground and rely on solid analyses of current and expected future trends.

Their exploration of resumed normal relations with Hamas suggests to me that we should keep our eye on possible slow changes in the Hamas-Syria-Iran relationship, and a new phase of nationalist leadership in Palestine in which Hamas plays a larger role.

This is a welcomed development, for two reasons: It suggests that both Jordan and Hamas are being realistic rather than romantically idealistic about the realities of their world, and it could promote new diplomatic possibilities on the now dim Hamas-Israel horizon.

Changes in strategic relationships tend to occur gradually in the Middle East, as actors sense that regional ties may be changing and adjust accordingly, to ensure that they are not left dangling in the air without friends or allies. So the meetings between Jordanian intelligence officers and Beirut-based Hamas officials may be as important for what they signal about Iran, Syria, Israel and Palestine as for what they tell us about Hamas and Jordan.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon