Arab uprisings have greatly affected the political landscape of the Middle East. Gone is the era when autocratic or totalitarian rulers unilaterally decided their approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. New and surviving political actors are now sensitive to their public's sentiments toward the Palestinian question, which runs deep in the collective consciousness of the Arabs. The Arab uprisings have foregrounded the Palestinian cause in the region’s politics, but it has remained secondary to immediate Arab concerns about the Syrian crisis and its implications for the region. In Washington, this has fed an impression that the fall of the Syrian regime would disrupt the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah-Hamas axis—on Israel, the thinking goes, their hands would be tied.
This Beltway conventional wisdom has serious flaws and implications for U.S. policy making. Broadly speaking, the uprising in Syria has compelled Hamas to begin steering away from Damascus—and by extension Tehran—and turn instead toward Egypt and Jordan. But this development cannot be misconstrued as a collapse or even a severe disruption of the Iranian-led rejectionist axis, which is constantly reinventing and adapting itself to changing conditions in the Middle East.
Hamas’s New Role
There is a growing consensus among Arab political elites, especially Islamists, that, after years of ineffectual negotiations and in a climate where Israelis are anxious about the implications of Arab uprisings for their security, Israel has all but abandoned the concept of the two-state solution in favor of the status quo. Neither Arab regimes nor Islamists can swallow this bitter pill. Nor will they pursue policies inimical to Hamas and favorable to Israel. While Jordan and Saudi Arabia have a national interest in resuming the peace process, the Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (and its affiliates in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Gaza) have a superficial interest in resuming the peace process, if only to conceal their immediate strategy—to reduce Egypt's and Jordan's economic and security cooperation with Israel—until the Syrian crisis is over. This strategy was described to me by an influential member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Although the Egyptian Islamist ruling party has played a role in trying to bring Hamas and Fatah together in May and November 2011, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) would support its sister organization Hamas more than Fatah. Notwithstanding the recent terror attack on Egyptian soldiers next to Gaza in Sinai, the FJP would try to legitimize Hamas regionally and internationally. Meanwhile, Hamas would most likely continue its policy of building a de facto state in Gaza.
At the same time, reducing Jordan's security cooperation with Israel is going to be both a priority and a challenge for the Brotherhood. Jordan's Islamic Action Front, a Brotherhood affiliate, has been vocal in condemning the country's diplomatic relations and security cooperation with Israel. So far, King Abdullah has been able to prevent public dissatisfaction from transforming into widespread demonstrations. Nevertheless, the threat persists as the pace and substance of reform do not reflect genuine change. Recently, the king swore in the third new cabinet since protests first rocked Jordan fifteen months ago.
The Islamic Action Front is pursuing two-track policy: supporting substantive reform, mainly the abrogation of the king’s prerogative to shape and suspend the government, and trying to broaden its base of support. Any disruption of stability in Jordan or any possible governmental change in the country could bring about a serious transformation in Jordanian and Palestinian politics. An Islamist victory in future elections would give Hamas the opportunity to affect Palestinian politics in Jordan and in the West Bank, potentially undermining Fatah's nationalist hegemony in the West Bank and in Diaspora.
Hamas's role as a member of the rejectionist axis has been diminished. Yet Hamas's potential new domestic and regional role could be far more challenging to Fatah and to Israel's national security.
Hamas's role pales in comparison to that Hezbollah may play. Hezbollah has consistently condemned peace negotiations as futile. Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hezbollah, has repeatedly asserted that Israel only understands the logic of force. Ominously, Nasrallah, toeing the Iranian line, has depicted the rebellion in Syria as a conspiracy concocted by United States and Israel to topple the Syrian regime. He has become more vocal about the Palestinian cause as an extension of what he considers the muqawama (resistance), in part to justify his party's stand by the Syrian regime.
In his 2012 speech on the anniversary of the July 2006 war, Nasrallah not only reasserted his support of the Syrian regime but also hailed the slain Syrian officers in the bombing of the National Security Headquarters as "martyr leaders and comrades-in-arms on the path of the conflict with the Israeli enemy." Nasrallah's speech implies that the battle for Syria has become linked with the Arab-Israeli conflict and that the resistance—Iran, Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas—is up to the challenge.
As the war escalates in Syria and the regime is put on the defensive, Hezbollah, in conjunction with Tehran and Damascus, may trigger a diplomatic confrontation with Israel. The Islamist party might pressure Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to rush en masse to the border of Israel and therefore compel Israel to fire at them, creating an international outcry; an extensive redo of what happened in May and June 2011 when Israel fired at a number of Palestinians.