“Jordan and Hamas: a window briefly opened, then shut” by Rana Sabbagh-Gargour

The following is the text of the article appearing in the Lebanese Daily Star :

Jordan and Hamas: a window briefly opened, then shut
By Rana Sabbagh-Gargour
Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Jordan has stalled its brief “tactical” flirtation with Hamas pending formulation of the United States’ strategy toward the Middle East, including the peace process, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Amman, wedged between two regional zones of instability and chaos, Iraq to the east and Palestine to the west, also wants regional factors to clear before it decides what to do next with Hamas.

The Israel-Hamas war exposed the limits of Jordan’s ability to remain independent of the polarization in Arab political dynamics. The pro-United States Arab moderates, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt that, like Jordan, support Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and peace talks as a strategy, are aligned against Syria, Hamas and Hizbullah, backed by Iran, which want Arabs to deter Israel. For now, Amman has opted to freeze talks begun last summer with Hamas and its Jordanian allies, the Muslim Brotherhood. This brief thaw was engineered by Gen. Mohammad Dhahabi, the head of Jordan’s General Intelligence Department (GID), who was removed on December 29, partly because of the regional fallout of the Gaza campaign.

The war showed the “Hamasization” of the Jordanian street, where Islamists organized hundreds of demonstrations urging the government to engage with Hamas and reverse the unpopular 1994 peace treaty with Israel. They also accused Abbas of collaborating with Israel.

“The recent openness toward Hamas proved too costly for Jordan, both externally and internally,” said a government official. “Apart from angering our key peace allies, the Americans, the Israelis and President Abbas, the legitimate president of the [Palestinian Authority], we gained little from talking to Hamas and from improving ties with the Jordanian Brotherhood.”

The Islamists and other independent politicians, however, disagree. They say easing tensions with Hamas and the local Islamists allowed unprecedented harmony between official Jordan and popular sentiments during the Gaza onslaught. With a solid national front behind the leadership, Jordan had more cards to play while trying to navigate the hot waters of regional alignments.

Officials say the government has recently decided to strip the Muslim Brotherhood and its local political arm, the Islamic Action Front (IAF) of tools it believes have helped the IAF regain popularity after elections in 2007 battered it into virtual parliamentary insignificance–a defeat the IAF blamed on massive fraud by the GID. The Interior Ministry is revisiting Dhahabi’s decision to allow 20 Islamist clerics back to deliver sermons at Friday prayers, after some of them blasted Arab leaders who talked to Israel. The government is also considering ways to delay the imminent publication of the pro-Islamist daily As-Sabeel.

And contrary to promises made in July, the government will not return the financial and investment arm of the Brotherhood back to Islamist control after taking it over two years ago amid charges of corruption. Furthermore, the ministry has reinforced regulations that require political parties to seek prior official approval for any public gathering or demonstrations, after freezing such guidelines during the Gaza war in a bid to ease public tension. It turned down a request by Islamists to organize a rally last Friday to celebrate “Hamas’ victory in Gaza.”

The short-lived Hamas-Jordan thaw came nine years after Jordan expelled leaders of Hamas, in a reflection of the young King Abdullah’s shifting priorities in comparison to those of his father, the late King Hussein who died in 1999. For his father, the Hamas presence in Jordan was a card against Yasser Arafat in Palestinian politics, from which he never really withdrew. For King Abdullah, far more focused on Jordan, that presence was a nuisance blocking his quest for a closer military and political alliance with Washington, and a potential domestic security problem.

However, Dhahabi convinced the king and the National Strategic Council that Jordan needed to open up to Hamas and to the Jordanian Islamists as part of a precautionary strategy to face the fallout of US President George W. Bush’s failure to deliver on his promise to see through the creation of a two-state solution before he left the White House in early 2009. Dhahabi also pushed for better ties with Syria and Qatar, two regional players and allies of Hamas, to bolster Jordan’s position.

Insiders say the GID had little confidence that Abbas’ PA would not collapse in 2009, either leaving a power vacuum in the West Bank that might be challenged by Hamas or allowing Hamas simply to take the helm. In either case, the GID assumed that Hamas would prevent the influx of West Bank Palestinians to Jordan. And it would help ease the spillover of any security deterioration that would likely follow the PA’s collapse.

Dhahabi’s calculation also reflected growing mistrust within the Jordanian establishment of Fatah, the dominant faction in the PLO, which Abbas heads. Dhahabi was worried that Fatah elites might negotiate a peace deal at the expense of Jordanian interests to save their faltering legitimacy. Having Hamas and the Jordanian Islamists on the side of official Jordan would curb the agenda of influential politicians in the US and Israel who continue to see Jordan as an “alternative homeland” for Palestinians.

Insiders say Jordan kept the “talks with Hamas through the security channel” to reduce criticism by Western and Arab allies that it was legitimizing Hamas. Jordan also did not want to be seen as going back on its stated desire to see Hamas accept conditions set by the Quartet in 2005.

King Abdullah is now warning in private and public meetings with local politicians and foreign leaders that the coming six months will be filled with regional challenges detrimental to Jordan. But he is willing to give the new American president, Barack Obama, some time to flesh out his promise of an American policy initiative in the Middle East by seeking to engage Syria and Iran as “constructive regional actors” and renewing efforts to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

King Abdullah also needs to see how Obama will deal with the outcome of yesterday’s elections in Israel, and Amman wants to see if the latest US-led efforts to enforce the Gaza ceasefire and encourage intra-Palestinian reconciliation will bear fruit. “We will continue to push for a two-state solution to protect Jordan’s security and stability while making sure that Palestinians in the West Bank are empowered with security and economic stability to stay on the ground and to bury the ‘Jordan is Palestine’ scenario,” a Jordanian official has said.

“We will not allow any local or regional forces to push us to embrace the agenda of chaos and destruction that Iran and its allies are pursuing.”

Rana Sabbagh-Gargour is a journalist and former chief editor of The Jordan Times. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.

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