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The Strange, or Not Too strange, Hamas U-Turn

Amidst all the turmoil and upheaval ripping through the Arab world, the Palestinians came out -- yet again -- to claim world headlines with a groundbreaking reconciliation agreement between the pro-Western Fatah Movement and the hardline Islamic group, Hamas. The two sides have agreed, in secret negotiations under auspices of the Egyptians, to form an interim government of independents, chosen by both Hamas and Fatah. The new government will have the authority to fix the date for upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, and rebuild Gaza, which was destroyed during the Israeli war of 2008-2009. Mahmoud Abbas, who has been accused by Hamas of being an unconstitutional president since January 2009, will stay in power during the upcoming period, becoming a ceremonial head of state -- something of an elderly grandfather figure for Palestinians of all colors.

The handwriting for such a historic deal has been on the wall since talks started, to no avail, 18-months ago. During that period, Abbas's prime backer, ex-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, fell from grace while unrest broke out in Syria last March, diverting the attention of Hamas' prime supporters in the Arab world. The Syrians are too busy for Hamas and Fatah, and so are the Jordanians and Saudis who both have previously played the go-between in Palestinian politics, often backing one side against the other. With the Arab neighborhood fully ablaze, the Palestinians wisely decided to quietly settle their own differences with minimal media attention, regardless of what various Arab players had wanted for them since the two groups parted ways after the 2007 Hamas seizure of Gaza.

Shortly after the agreement was announced, President Abbas came out to quiet immediate Western and Israeli alarm by saying that all peace talks will remain in his hands, and those of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). "Politics is for the PLO" said President Abbas, "and we will continue to follow my policies." Meaning Hamas will not get to dictate foreign policy or impose its views on any forthcoming Palestinian-Israeli agreement. He then sent off another confidence building statement to the West, assuring them that no Hamas member will assume the premiership at this stage -- as the case with Ismail Haniyeh in 2006-2007, when he presided over the first Hamas-packed cabinet in the Abbas administration. Abbas said that it was "too early to talk about who will be the prime minister," also reassuring heavyweights in Fateh who feared that he would appoint the Western-loved, Hamas-hated Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

What mattered to ordinary Palestinians disgusted with the attitude of both parties, was that reconciliation was now in the air, and that the West Bank and Gaza Strip will finally be re-united after four years of division which ripped the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) right in two.

Rather than welcome the deal, which ultimately unites Palestinians in the peace process and creates a safer and more stable Middle East, the Israelis immediately snapped foul play, undoubtedly furious with Hamas returning to the scene so powerfully. Israel's hard-line Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that the deal makes the West Bank vulnerable to a Hamas takeover. He failed to acknowledge that Hamas has changed drastically over the past four years and is no longer the same Hamas that Israel combated so viciously since the 1980s. This Hamas was wiser, more pragmatic, and more seasoned in politics than ever before, copying, and in fact eager to become, another Fateh. That at least, is the image it tried to get across until on Monday, Ismail Haniyeh came out with a thundering message of sorrow over the death of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Haniyeh described Bin Laden as a "holy warrior." He added, "We ask God to offer him mercy with the true believers and the martyrs." Haniyeh's position speaks volumes since it reflects his sincere inner thoughts in complete disregard to how the world will view such a remark and how damaging it can be for Hamas. It was the most unwise statement anybody wanting to enter the international community could make.

In 2009, Ismail Haniyeh said that he was willing to start peace talks with the Israelis based on the 1967 borders of Palestine. Gone was the rhetoric that refused to accept anything short of the 1948 borders of Palestine. Shortly afterwards, Hamas said that it would be willing to lay down its arms if Palestinian nationhood was achieved, on those same 1967 borders. Last year, its leaders in Damascus added that they accepted Barack Obama's mediation in the peace process -- a role they had previously refused, arguing that they will no longer work to obstruct the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which called for collective Arab peace with Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab land. By virtue of joining the PNA in 2006 and creating a cabinet within it, Hamas had effectively offered de facto recognition of Israel and the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993, which previously they had also refused to acknowledge. This was not a Hamas that was still bent on the total destruction of Israel. Although many of its top command still wish it, they realize that political wisdom dictates that a Middle East with no Israel is impossible to find, in today's world.

Hard-liners insist on seeing none of that, with Lieberman arguing that with this deal "a red line has been crossed." The Israeli Foreign Minister, who is fully backed in his views by Prime Minister Netanyahu, added, "We have at our disposal a vast arsenal of measures including the lifting of VIP status for Abu Mazen and Salam Fayyad, which will not allow them to move freely." He was of course referring to the same punishment that Israel had enforced on the late Yasser Arafat in 2002-2004, when he was confined to his office in Ramallah, unable to commute due to a harsh siege imposed on him by the IDF. Liebermann also threatened to withhold Palestinian custom levies, thereby depriving the PNA of up to a third of its revenue -- again, repeating an earlier tactic imposed in 2006, after Hamas democratically won Palestinian parliamentary elections.

Other top Israeli officials have been furious with the deal, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The EU has welcomed the deal, although made it clear that it wants Fateh to continue dominating the PNA in order to maintain a pro-peace and pro-Western approach in the Palestinian Territories. Germany followed a radical approach, with its Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle saying that no dialogue between his country and Hamas was possible until Hamas changes its official charter, which calls for the destruction of Israel. Russia welcomed the agreement, and Abbas came out on Thursday asking the world to give the new deal a chance. "What happened in Cairo is the key to peace. Give us a chance. We know how to handle it" he said.

This is exactly what the world needs to do today: give both Hamas and Fateh a chance, while recognizing the fact that this is not the same Hamas of the 1980s. Without such a deal, any peace talks between Fateh and Israel would have been simply impossible, since no peace treaty can pass if half of the Palestinian population -- at least -- does not support it. Nobody knew that better than the Israelis themselves who fully realize that Abbas is no Arafat and cannot deliver on his own simply because he lacks the respect, the charisma, and the nationalist credentials required for a peace treaty. Arafat had them, and this is what enabled him to sign Oslo in 1993. Hamas still has them today, although much of its reputation was also damaged due to the senseless bickering it carried out with Fateh since 2007.

The leaders of Hamas are now dying to be recognized as statesmen of international caliber, rather than simply, guerrilla warriors that are feared and loathed by the entire world. Haniyeh's statement on bin Laden certainly took them 100 steps backwards, but there are others in Hamas who think differently, and who sincerely want this deal to see the light. They have already obtained every point there is to score in the guidebook of popular revolutionary movements and now want to rise to a new level in their career -- similar to how Arafat did when he transformed from revolutionary into peacemaker in 1993. Additionally they have realized that the West Bank-Gaza fissure did nothing to advance the Palestinian Cause. Far from it; that rupture came at the expense of the Palestinian nation as a whole, minimizing respect for the Palestinians in the international community, and both the Arab and Islamic world. Hamas will use Fateh to obtain their desired status in Palestinian history books, and Fateh will use Hamas to polish their image, which has been in constant decline since Arafat's death in 2004.

The world order needs to give them a chance -- protecting, rather than questioning or obstructing -- the new agreement.