The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
No major actor in the Middle East will go unaffected by the recent nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 negotiators, and the Palestinians are no exception. First, the agreement will exacerbate tensions within Hamas’ military and political wings over who should benefit from Iran’s newfound sanctions relief. Second, it will embolden the Palestinian Authority’s campaign to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to international forums in hopes of relaunching talks, as its leaders believe their issue is the most pressing on the world’s diplomatic agenda now that the Iranian question is off of the diplomatic to-do list.
Cash-strapped Hamas has already started jockeying for more Iranian cash, with some officials praising the deal. Others have used the deal as an occasion to comment on the Hamas–Iran relationship: senior Politburo member Moussa Abu Marzouk recently complained that Iran had cut funds to the movement, while Hamas’s man in Tehran insisted that relations were strong. For Fatah’s part, officials have taken the opportunity to request that the international community now turn its attention to the Israel-Palestine issue. As Fatah Central Committee member Mohammad Shtayyeh said, the deal is an important development but the world should now focus on “the nuclear disarmament of Israel.” Statements like these serve Fatah’s desires not only to bring international attention to its cause but also to galvanize world opinion against Israel in its search for leverage.
Palestine’s political parties both see the nuclear agreement as a precursor to freeing up sanctions relief for Iran while providing the diplomatic bandwidth for Western ambassadors to reengage the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Fatah and Hamas have vastly different ideas about where those newly liberated resources should be applied, though. And Hamas itself is divided. While members of the Politburo recently visited Saudi Arabia in the hopes of rehabilitating ties with the Kingdom, Hamas’s military wing—the Qassam Brigades—has reportedly sent emissaries to court Iran. While the Politburo officials may make the headline statements, the Qassam Brigades consistently court Iran for financial assistance the Politburo won’t provide. As one Israeli official noted, “When there’s no alternative at home, they turn to the Iranians.”
Hamas will have to worry about the Iran deal exacerbating its already growing internal rift between its civil and military leadership. Its military leadership is gearing up for another war with Israel. Headed by Qassam Brigades’ Chief Commander Mohammed Deif, the group has begun replenishing its rocket supplies and has resumed digging tunnels into Israel. Qassam’s ties with Iran run deep: around 2009, Tehran began providing missiles capable of attacking targets deep in Israel, and during the latest Gaza war last summer, an Iranian official bragged that roughly 4,000 Hamas rockets fired at Israel were due to “the blessings of Iran’s transfer of technology.” Now, with the Iran poised to receive billions in sanctions relief, Hamas’s armed wing is expecting to get its cut.
Meanwhile, Hamas’ political wing seems to be trying to steer the ship in a different direction. Shortly after the Iran deal was announced, members of the group’s Politburo attended a meeting with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in Riyadh—the first such meeting between the Saudi royal and Hamas’ political leaders in three years. Ostensibly, the purpose of the meeting was for Saudi Arabia to check up on the progress of Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. Beneath the surface, however, it is possible that Riyadh is looking to recruit as many Sunni allies as possible as a counterbalance to Iran’s Shia bloc. Hamas’ perennially underfunded political officials appear more than happy to accept what one described as generous support for the Palestinian cause “on a political, moral, and material level.”
The Politburo’s glee at Saudi Arabia’s courtship will only exacerbate the deepening rift between Hamas’ political and military wings—a rift with the potential for deadly repercussions. Last June, when the political wing decided to sign a unity agreement with Fatah, a Turkey-based leader of Qassam’s West Bank branch ordered the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. The subsequent escalation brought increased rocket attacks and reprisals in Gaza, which ultimately led to a bloody 50-day war. The gulf between these two sides of Hamas was so wide that Politburo leader Khaled Meshaal openly admitted in a subsequent interview that he had no idea about the plans to abduct the teenagers. Meshaal’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia and apparent courtship may appeal to the group’s political wing, but it is highly unlikely that Saudi Arabia will provide the kind of military assistance that the Qassam Brigades is accustomed to getting from Iran. And the Gaza-based military wing is unlikely to look kindly upon the mostly Gulf-based political wing upsetting their relations with Iran while courting the Saudis.
Fatah chief and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas is taking notice of Hamas’ recent moves. Reports are swirling that Abbas will soon make a trip to Riyadh so that he can attempt to counter the Kingdom’s courtship of Hamas’ political wing. Fatah officials were also quick to insist that Egypt—which is wary of Hamas’s Muslim Brotherhood ties—should be the principal arbiter of Fatah-Hamas reconciliation.
Now that the P5+1 have completed negotiations, Abbas and the Palestinian Authority are expecting similar treatment along the lines of their international campaign.
But Abbas and the Palestinian Authority may also see an opportunity on a different track in the post-JCPOA world. Palestinian leaders have for years called for an international conference to advance the peace process, but until recently that call has mostly fallen on deaf ears. These requests intensified after the collapse of the U.S.-led talks in 2014, eventually leading the Palestinians to push a failed recognition vote at the UN Security Council and, ultimately, join the International Criminal Court. Now, with P5+1 finishing up a major diplomatic agreement, the Palestinian Authority sees their cause as the next one on the docket.
Since 2014’s failed recognition vote, PA officials insisted until recently that France would sponsor another attempt at the Security Council, but as the Iran negotiations neared a close in July, the Palestinians openly admitted that the French were too preoccupied to focus on the Palestinian file. Instead, France and the EU seem to have shifted their tactics regarding the peace process. Despite warm Palestinian support for the French initiative, neighboring Arab countries were less than enthused. Privately, Arab officials were concerned that any Security Council resolution authored by the French would undercut the consensus Arab position based on the Arab Peace Initiative. Now, with the Iran deal behind it, the EU seems to have toed closer to the Arab League’s line. This week, the EU released a statement reasserting its support for the Arab initiative, and Abbas himself followed suit while entertaining the Italian prime minister in Ramallah on Wednesday.
Now that the P5+1 have completed negotiations, Abbas and the Palestinian Authority are expecting similar treatment along the lines of their international campaign. In June, PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah said that the Palestinians had received “assurances” that once the Iran deal was concluded, the United States would launch another round of Israeli-Palestinian talks. Now, the Palestinians are looking for Washington to follow through. As one official told Haaretz: “Just like the powers—especially the U.S.—were determined to conclude the negotiations and went to great lengths, so do we see the Palestinian issue as an equally important matter and expect the U.S. and world powers to exert the same efforts.”
The full regional effect of the Iran deal is unclear at this point, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be the first point of impact. The agreement will exacerbate the rift inside Hamas, and between that movement and Fatah. The recently dismantled Palestinian Authority unity government has already emerged as a handpicked creature of Abbas, and the proverbial distance between the West Bank and Gaza will grow as the PA continues to claim to speak for all Palestinians in the territories while only representing some. Even if a new round of talks were launched, the Palestinian side would be even further divided. And at least part of that is because of the Iran agreement.