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Inside Hamas/ Israel's Iran dilemma

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Update from AIJAC

March 2, 2012
Number 03/12 #01

This Update features two new and penetrating analyses of the ructions and political disagreements currently roiling Hamas, as well as an important new expression of Israel's dilemmas vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear program in the lead up to Israeli PM Netanyahu's trip to Washington next week.

First up is the always excellently informed top Israeli journalist, Ehud Yaari, sorting out the power struggles within Hamas. Yaari says that the once unassailable Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal now seems to be in deep trouble, cut off from a base of operations and with increasingly public denunciations of his policies from within Hamas' senior ranks. Yaari also explains the political considerations that led to Meshaal's signature on last month's Doha unity agreement with Fatah, and how internal opposition to the deal within Hamas has rendered that deal all but dead in the water. For this essential reading on what is actually going on in Hamas,  CLICK HERE.

Next up is Council on Foreign Relations expert Robert Danin exploring Hamas' decision last week to finally and publicly break with Syria's Assad regime, which had been a host and sponsor for decades. Danin explains the move as principally an attempt by Hamas to identify with and be identified with the Arab Spring political movements. He also notes that there has been no actual ideological shift by Hamas, which remains committed to Israel's destruction via "armed resistance", but does suggest that the new alignment may cause Hamas to crack down on rocket fire on Israel from Gaza by the still pro-Assad Islamic Jihad group. For his complete analysis of the Hamas-Damascus rift, CLICK HERE.

Finally, we offer a unique perspective on Israel's considerations in contemplating a possible military strike to halt Iran's nuclear progress from Gen. Amos Yadlin -  not only a former military intelligence chief, but also one of the pilots who flew the 1981 mission to destroy Iraq's Osirak nuclear plant. He uses that experience to comment on some of the current debate about the possibility of a strike on Iran, noting that, back then, like today, there were doubts Israel could successfully mount such a raid, and furthermore, there were arguments that such an attack would be only a setback of a few years for Iraq's nuclear ambitions. But the heart of the article is explaining how, in the lead up to the Netanyahu visit to Washington, where Iran is expected to be the main subject of discussion, the Israelis and Americans see the problem is subtly different ways. For all that Yadlin has to say,  CLICK HERE. Another good Israeli view of what Israel needs to hear in Washington to preempt the need for  a military strike comes from Israeli diplomatic correspondent Udi Segal.

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The Agony of Hamas

 

By Ehud Yaari

Times of Israel, February 27, 2012

Hamas's no-longer-undisputed leader Khaled Mashaal is now in deep trouble. He's having difficulty finding a new home after leaving Damascus, and during his travels across the Arab world, he's meeting with growing opposition to his policies from within his own movement.

This is the most serious rift ever within Hamas's ranks. It has already turned into a bitter public controversy between Mashaal and his few loyalist lieutenants, versus his own Deputy Head of the Political Bureau, Dr. Musa Abu-Marzuq, and the top leaders in Gaza.

A major effort is currently underway to resolve the crisis quietly and present a semblance of renewed unity amongst Hamas's top echelon. Too late! By now it has become obvious that Hamas is severely divided on its future course as well as on the identity of its post-Syria sponsors.

A few months into the uprising against Bashar Assad, Mashaal reached the conclusion that Hamas could no longer afford to appear as supporting and benefiting from the Syrian regime, which is butchering its own people. He understood that Hamas -- the Palestinian wing of the Moslem Brotherhood -- should not position itself against its colleagues in the Syrian Moslem Brotherhood, who are struggling to wrest control of the revolt -- a revolt that has won the public blessing of the Brotherhood's Qatari-based spiritual guide Sheikh Yussef al-Qardawi and all other branches of the movement.

One by one, Hamas leaders sneaked out of Damascus -- first sending away their families and then packing up the political and military offices. Assad refrained from any open criticism of Hamas's departure in return for Mashaal's promise to keep praising Syria's role in assisting the "resistance," while expressing only vague sympathy for the "aspirations of the people."

Different leaders of Hamas have found new homes for themselves: Abu-Marzuq in Cairo; Muhammad Nazzal in Amman; Imad al-Alami (the military supremo) went back to Gaza. But no country -- except far-away Qatar -- has so far agreed to accommodate the Hamas headquarters and allow it to operate out of its territory. Egypt, Jordan and even Sudan said no to Mashaal's request.

Abandoning their secure base in Damascus without being able to obtain an alternative safe haven, the "External Leadership" of Hamas is fast losing ground in its ongoing rivalry with the "Internal Leadership" centered in the Gaza Strip. Mashaal is no longer in sole control of the movement's purse strings, since contributions from Tehran were reduced. He no longer enjoys the recognition of Syria, Iran and Hezbollah in his supremacy within Hamas.

In short, Mashaal, whose claim to be number one was always contested by some in Gaza, reached a point where he felt that he should make an unprecedented public offer not to run again this summer for chairmanship of the Political Bureau. Soon enough it became quite evident that many of the Gaza leaders -- and also Abu-Marzuq -- were not going to beg him to stay.

That has left Mashaal in a bind: He has committed himself to retire from the top position, yet he has no intention of doing that. He still expects to be "convinced" by his colleagues to remain in his seat.

And so, earlier this month, Mashaal resorted to a sudden dramatic exercise: On February 6 in Doha he signed -- under the auspices (and financial incentives) of the Emir of Qatar -- an agreement with the Palestinian Authority's Mahmoud Abbas to form a "temporary" technocrats' Unity Government, with Abu Mazen himself as prime minister. They also agreed to postpone general elections without fixing a specific date.

This was a bombshell. Mashaal has agreed, at least implicitly, to make a major concession: to dismantle Hamas's own government in Gaza, which has ruled the Strip for the last five years, and to allow the PA administration (and security services?) to resume control over the different ministries. He seemed to be sacrificing Hamas's autonomous enclave in the hope that, at an unspecified date, Hamas might win in the ballot boxes.

Furthermore, Mashaal made a few statements recommending "popular struggle" -- which is the code for unarmed confrontation -- against Israel. This was perceived as meaning he was willing to suspend use of bullets and rockets, contrary to Hamas's traditional devotion to the concept of "armed resistance." He also expressed acceptance of a Palestinian state within 1967 boundaries, although he stressed that there would be no peace or recognition of The Zionist Entity, and the goal will remain the destruction of Israel. To many in Hamas, Mashaal sounded as if he was diverting to a dangerous course in an effort to adjust to the Arab Spring, handing their Fatah rivals an easy victory.

A chorus of protests by the Gaza leaders -- not to mention by the West Bankers -- immediately erupted. Mashaal was accused of acting behind the back of the Hamas institutions and deviating from the adopted policies. Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahar, an old foe of Mashaal's, took the lead in public, but many joined him during the closed doors sessions of Hamas meetings in Khartoum and then in Cairo. The plan to appoint Abbas as prime minister was described as "unconstitutional."

Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the Hamas government in Gaza, embarked on a tour of several Arab countries, avoiding any hint of support for the Doha Agreement. Then he ignored warnings by the Gulf states and the Moslem Brotherhood and paid a widely publicized visit to Iran, kissing and hugging Supreme Leader Khamenei and asking for direct financial assistance to Gaza. On his return to Cairo, incidentally, the crowd at al-Azhar mosque Friday prayer cheered him by shouting "Down with Iran, Down with Hezbollah!"

And so, right now, the ever-negotiated reconciliation process between Hamas and Fatah is again bogged down. Abbas insists on the implementation of the deal cut with Mashaal. The majority of Hamas leaders demand "amendments" to the Doha Agreement. Maintaining exclusive security control over the Strip is definitely a Hamas condition now, as is a demand for veto power over the appointment of all ministers.

The two parties keep conferring in Cairo but so far cannot agree on an Abbas visit to Gaza. The internal debate within Hamas has been brought to the surface.

The movement has lost the pretense of cohesion. The battle over command and direction is on.

Ehud Yaari is a Lafer international fellow with The Washington Institute.

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Hamas Breaks From Syria

by Robert M. Danin

Council on Foreign Relations
February 29, 2012

While the “Friends of Syria” were meeting in Tunis last week, Hamas was separately taking its own steps to disavow the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. In a significant move, Hamas officials announced last Friday—in Egypt as well as in Gaza—its break with the Assad regime. Hamas’ strategic realignment affects the Middle East chessboard, both regionally and within Palestinian politics.

Hamas’ abandonment of its long-time Alawite backers further deepens the Middle East fault line between the Sunni and Shiite worlds. Hamas has now aligned itself with its Sunni brethren already united against the Assad regime. Syria’s Middle East backers are now down to Shiite Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and Iran. Iranian officials are upset with Hamas, and it is not clear if Tehran will continue to supply Hamas with money and weapons. Iran’s leaders could not have helped notice that worshipers in Egypt, where the break was announced, responded by chanting, “No Hezbollah and no Iran. The Syrian revolution is an Arab revolution.”

Indeed, the symbolism and locale of Hamas’ leader Ismail Haniyeh’s announcement of the break—before a crowd of thousands at Cairo’s al-Azhar Mosque—is noteworthy. Hamas, originally an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, has now even closer aligned itself with these ideological soulmates, who now hold the largest number of seats in the parliament in Cairo. Indeed, one byproduct of the Egyptian revolution and the subsequent elections has been to swing greater Egyptian support over the Palestine question toward Hamas and away from Mahmoud Abbas and his PLO, which had enjoyed strong support and patronage from former president Hosni Mubarak.

Hamas has now aligned itself fully with the sentiments of the region’s Arab uprisings. Here, Haniyeh’s comments were revealing: “I salute all the nations of the Arab Spring and I salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy, and reform.” In contrast, PLO and PA leader Mahmoud Abbas has largely been silent about the Arab uprisings in general, and the situation in Syria in particular. The loss of Mubarak—Abbas’s patron in negotiations with Israel—was a blow for the Palestinian leader, as Egypt no longer exerts the kind of heavy pressure on Hamas as it did under Mubarak to accede to Abbas and his Fatah party.

The small Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) remains the only Sunni organization still supportive of Syria, with the possible exception of a few largely ossified Palestinian splinter groups. Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Shalah has pledged to retain PIJ headquarters in Damascus. One side effect of this will be the exacerbation of tensions in Gaza between the ruling Hamas and the even more militant PIJ, which has used violence against Israel as a way to challenge Hamas’ primacy. Israel regularly retaliates militarily against Hamas facilities for Islamic Jihad rocket and mortar strikes into Israel, arguing that Hamas claims to rule the Gaza strip and is therefore responsible. This generally helps incentivize Hamas to take steps to keep PIJ quiet.

Hamas also faces other challenges. Having lost its external base in Syria, it has yet to find a new one. Only Qatar, so far, has been willing to offer itself up as a potential home for Hamas’ headquarters. Moreover, the past year’s regional changes have exacerbated internal rifts within Hamas over doctrinal as well as tactical issues. This has been most apparent in the differing attitudes adopted within Hamas towards the unity deal signed last month between Hamas external leader Khaled Meshal and Mahmoud Abbas in Doha.

Hamas’ break with Syria has not been accompanied by a fundamental ideological shift. While some within Hamas hint at a move towards “popular struggle,” that tactical shift has not been universally accepted and remains highly contentious. For now at least, the organization remains committed to Israel’s destruction by means of armed resistance. Moreover, and at a deeper level, Hamas believes that long regional trends are breaking their way. Islamist parties have gained power in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. Many believe Hamas’ ideological soulmates, the Muslim Brotherhood, will emerge strengthened if not empowered, in Syria. Many in Hamas will argue that they need not change, since it is the Middle East that is changing more to their liking. In the immediate period ahead at least, they well may be right.

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Israel’s Last Chance to Strike Iran

By AMOS YADLIN


New York Times, February 29, 2012


ON June 7, 1981, I was one of eight Israeli fighter pilots who bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. As we sat in the briefing room listening to the army chief of staff, Rafael Eitan, before starting our planes’ engines, I recalled a conversation a week earlier when he’d asked us to voice any concerns about our mission.

We told him about the risks we foresaw: running out of fuel, Iraqi retaliation, how a strike could harm our relationship with America, and the limited impact a successful mission might have — perhaps delaying Iraq’s nuclear quest by only a few years. Listening to today’s debates about Iran, we hear the same arguments and face the same difficulties, even though we understand it is not 1981.

Shortly after we destroyed Osirak, the Israeli defense attaché in Washington was called into the Pentagon. He was expecting a rebuke. Instead, he was faced with a single question: How did you do it? The United States military had assumed that the F-16 aircraft they had provided to Israel had neither the range nor the ordnance to attack Iraq successfully. The mistake then, as now, was to underestimate Israel’s military ingenuity.

We had simply maximized fuel efficiency and used experienced pilots, trained specifically for this mission. We ejected our external fuel tanks en route to Iraq and then attacked the reactor with pinpoint accuracy from so close and such a low altitude that our unguided bombs were as accurate and effective as precision-guided munitions.

Today, Israel sees the prospect of a nuclear Iran that calls for our annihilation as an existential threat. An Israeli strike against Iran would be a last resort, if all else failed to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program. That moment of decision will occur when Iran is on the verge of shielding its nuclear facilities from a successful attack — what Israel’s leaders have called the “zone of immunity.”

Some experts oppose an attack because they claim that even a successful strike would, at best, delay Iran’s nuclear program for only a short time. But their analysis is faulty. Today, almost any industrialized country can produce a nuclear weapon in four to five years — hence any successful strike would achieve a delay of only a few years.

What matters more is the campaign after the attack. When we were briefed before the Osirak raid, we were told that a successful mission would delay the Iraqi nuclear program for only three to five years. But history told a different story.

After the Osirak attack and the destruction of the Syrian reactor in 2007, the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programs were never fully resumed. This could be the outcome in Iran, too, if military action is followed by tough sanctions, stricter international inspections and an embargo on the sale of nuclear components to Tehran. Iran, like Iraq and Syria before it, will have to recognize that the precedent for military action has been set, and can be repeated.

Others claim that an attack on the Iranian nuclear program would destabilize the region. But a nuclear Iran could lead to far worse: a regional nuclear arms race without a red phone to defuse an escalating crisis, Iranian aggression in the Persian Gulf, more confident Iranian surrogates like Hezbollah and the threat of nuclear materials’ being transferred to terrorist organizations.

Ensuring that Iran does not go nuclear is the best guarantee for long-term regional stability. A nonnuclear Iran would be infinitely easier to contain than an Iran with nuclear weapons.

President Obama has said America will “use all elements of American power to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.” Israel takes him at his word.

The problem, however, is one of time. Israel doesn’t have the safety of distance, nor do we have the United States Air Force’s advanced fleet of bombers and fighters. America could carry out an extensive air campaign using stealth technology and huge amounts of ammunition, dropping enormous payloads that are capable of hitting targets and penetrating to depths far beyond what Israel’s arsenal can achieve.

This gives America more time than Israel in determining when the moment of decision has finally been reached. And as that moment draws closer, differing timetables are becoming a source of tension.

On Monday, Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel are to meet in Washington. Of all their encounters, this could be the most critical. Asking Israel’s leaders to abide by America’s timetable, and hence allowing Israel’s window of opportunity to be closed, is to make Washington a de facto proxy for Israel’s security — a tremendous leap of faith for Israelis faced with a looming Iranian bomb. It doesn’t help when American officials warn Israel against acting without clarifying what America intends to do once its own red lines are crossed.

Mr. Obama will therefore have to shift the Israeli defense establishment’s thinking from a focus on the “zone of immunity” to a “zone of trust.” What is needed is an ironclad American assurance that if Israel refrains from acting in its own window of opportunity — and all other options have failed to halt Tehran’s nuclear quest — Washington will act to prevent a nuclear Iran while it is still within its power to do so.

I hope Mr. Obama will make this clear. If he does not, Israeli leaders may well choose to act while they still can.

Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, is the director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.

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