(MENAFN - Khaleej Times) In the wake of revolutionary change in the Middle East, the forces of political Islam have scored one electoral victory after another. The issue of Hamas's role in the Palestinian territories looms large. The signing of a new unity deal between Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's secular Fatah party earlier this month has heightened an unprecedented struggle within Hamas over its future course as an Islamist movement. How the West responds could very well influence the outcome.
As events in recent weeks have proven, Hamas's days of near-total isolation in the Middle East are over. While most Western governments continue to consider it a terrorist organisation, in Arab capitals, political embargos have given way to engagement. This political outreach, however, has not emanated solely from Gaza. In January, Khaled Mishaal, the leader of Hamas's Damascus-based political bureau, embarked on a diplomatic initiative of his own, and was hosted by King Abdullah of Jordan " the first such visit in more than a decade. In February, Mishaal crowned these efforts in Qatar with the signing of the new unity agreement with Fatah, which commits both Palestinian movements to a transitional government under Abbas's leadership.
Ever since, disagreements within Hamas have been escalating, pitting the movement's diaspora leadership against the Hamas-led Gaza administration, which has openly rejected the unity deal. While personal ambitions certainly play a role in the tensions, what lies at the core is a fundamental conflict over Hamas's character. Haniyeh, who represents the conservative wing of Gaza's Hamas leadership, has sought to cash in on regional changes. His long-boycotted government was thrown a lifeline by regime change in Egypt and the opening of the border with Gaza. Notably, Haniyeh's recent diplomatic tour garnered not only symbolic recognition for Hamas, but also support for his uncompromising stance vis--vis Israel. He missed no opportunity to criticise "futile" peace negotiations. What that means needs little clarification. In a further telling move, Haniyeh also recently suggested merging Hamas with the Islamic Jihad movement, which continues to target Israeli civilians with rockets fired from Gaza.
Mishaal, by contrast, has come to represent a force of change. Last May, he signed an initial reconciliation agreement with Fatah in Cairo, which committed Hamas to a Palestinian unity government, called for a cessation of violenceand accepted the notion of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. Mishaal also offered Abbas a one-year mandate for negotiations with Israel, and, unlike Haniyeh, supported recent Israeli-Palestinian "exploratory talks" in Jordan.
One reason for Mishaal's change of heart can be found in the ongoing popular revolt in Syria against President Bashar Al Assad. The leader of the Sunni Hamas can no longer support his Syrian host, who has cracked down on the Sunni-dominated opposition. But Mishaal's refusal to support Assad has not only forced him to relocate. It has also unleashed the wrath of Syria's ally, Iran, which has responded by scaling down its financial support for Hamas " thus denying Mishaal a key source of influence within the movement. Indeed, Mishaal's decision has effectively ended his ties to his two most important allies, thereby not only weakening his position, but also increasing his readiness to embrace political moderation.
Mishaal has more than one option. He may reemerge as the head of a newly established Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, or as a leader of a new Islamist political party under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Such a merging of Hamas with the established Palestinian political organisations would signify Hamas's formal acceptance of a two-state solution, and would mark an important step in transforming the movement.
For the West, using the opportunity to influence Hamas's future course requires modifying the failed policy of all-encompassing rejection. As in Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia, Islamist moderates in the Palestinian territories need to be engaged as a legitimate political force. Leaders such as Mishaal, who has expressed a readiness to forsake alliances with Syria and Iran and to accept a two-state solution with Israel, should be bolstered rather than boycotted. That means supporting the ongoing effort to form an interim Palestinian government of technocrats, as stipulated in the Qatar agreement.
At times, such an approach will be challenging; Hamas will undoubtedly prove to be a difficult counterpart. But the United States, European governments, and Israel should take this opportunity to engage Hamas's moderates and test their flexibility. In the new Middle East, the West's current approach will only strengthen the hardliners in Gaza and elsewhere.