Hamas Ups the Ante

In recent weeks there has been an orchestrated effort to prevent Hamas from casting aspersions on the Arab regimes which, in the organization's view, have washed their hands of the Palestinian struggle against Israel.

In the Egyptian media Hamas is described as an agent of Iran, which is seen as trying to impose its hegemony in the Arab world through Hamas. Even writers who are close to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are warning the Arab regimes not to allow Iran to use this means to become the dominant player in the region.

In the face of the Egyptian-Saudi pincer movement, Hamas is trying to defend itself with the use of high-profile diplomacy. On Monday, its spokesmen reported publicly that Ismail Haniyeh, the organization's leader in Gaza, had spoken on the phone with the ruler of Qatar and the king of Bahrain. The point they were making is that Hamas, far from being isolated, is well-connected even with leaders who are considered moderates.

Hamas is also putting out reports to the effect that it is looking for a different mediator between it and the Israelis, because it does no believe Egypt can be considered an honest broker.

A senior Turkish source confirmed to Haaretz that Hamas asked Turkey a few weeks ago to act as a mediator, but the Turks did not accept. Ankara's view is that it is wrong to isolate Hamas, just as it is wrong to isolate Syria, because the direct beneficiary of such moves is Iran. Turkey does not consider Hamas a terrorist organization and draws a distinction between the organization as such and terrorist acts perpetrated by its activists.

This week Ankara chalked up a double achievement: Its prime minister held a phone conversation with Haniyeh shortly before Prime Minister Ehud Olmert arrived in Ankara, and promised him that he would ask Olmert to lift the siege on the Gaza Strip. Shortly afterward, with extraordinary coordination, Syrian President Bashar Assad announced that direct talks with Israel were the next logical step. The Turkish president is expected to visit Israel early in January.

In "normal times," a conversation like that would prompt a sharp Israeli reprimand. The Turks have not forgotten Israel's boisterous protest against the visit of Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Ankara. Now, though, the talk with Hamas was welcomed. When Israel needs a ceasefire, even the prime minister of Turkey is allowed to try his hand.

But Turkey will probably not replace Egypt as the mediator. According to a report this week, that role may be taken by Qatar. A Hamas source in the West Bank told Haaretz that "Qatar maintains good relations with the organization's leadership and there is no reason for it not to play a regional diplomatic role." Qatar also sent a ship with humanitarian aid to Gaza last week.

"Hamas is behaving like a state, not like an organization. It is executing diplomatic moves vis-a-vis Egypt that are designed to forge inter-Arab recognition that Hamas is the official leader of Palestine," says an Egyptian diplomatic source. "Regrettably, there are some Arab states that will agree to jump on this wagon."

He is not referring to Syria, which is already granting protection to the Hamas leadership. It is Jordan and Qatar with which Egypt is miffed. Cairo's status as a resolver of disputes has suffered much in recent years. It has not succeeded either in Lebanon or in the Palestinian Authority, has pushed aside the conflict in Sudan and is not involved in disputes in North Africa.

Hamas's struggle against Israel ostensibly enables it to reap political capital not only in Gaza and among the public in the Arab states. Hamas is also in a position to decide, for example, to whom it wants to "award" the status of mediator, who it will listen to and who will be crowned a resolver of disputes.

But Egypt has an effective hand to play against Hamas. This week a Palestinian Web site reported the inauguration of a new system for transporting cooking gas, which will operate between Egypt and Gaza via a sophisticated tunnel. An additional 100 tons of gas will be moved in this way monthly. This project is the initiative of 15 businessmen from Gaza and Egypt, who invested about $45,000 in it. To overcome the power outages, the investors will likely raise another 15,000 Egyptian pounds (about $3,000) to establish a tunnel-based electric grid. At a later stage they plan to set up a network to transport cement from Egypt to Gaza.

These reports contain no sensational news, but they do attest to the potency of Egypt's economic leverage on Hamas. Without Egypt and the everyday economic infrastructure it makes available to Gaza (which is highly profitable for those behind it), the Hamas leadership would be hard-put to contain a civil revolt in Gaza. It's not that life there is wonderful, but when was the last time we saw a demonstration like the ones that were held a year ago?

Consequently, it is not surprising that just three days after the announcement that it was annulling the tahadiyeh - the ceasefire - the Hamas leadership declared its one-day renewal with an extension option, but without a binding commitment, in order to continue the organization's tense game with Egypt. Hamas's official excuse was that it was acceding to an Egyptian request so that Cairo could transport aid packages "donated" by Suzanne Mubarak, the president's wife.

This did not constitute a thawing of relations between Hamas and Egypt. Cairo remains furious at Hamas for torpedoing the conciliation meeting it had worked hard to set up in November. Egypt was more appalled than Hamas at the possibility that Israel would launch a large-scale military operation, which would place Egypt in a rough spot.

According to Palestinian sources, Egypt made it clear to Hamas that without a tahadiyeh, even if only temporary, the everyday economic infrastructure would be in danger. That is a threat that not even Israel can make.