Looking Out for Number One

"Egypt will not tolerate an Islamic emirate on its eastern borders," warned the chairman of the Egyptian parliament's foreign relations committee, Mustafa al-Faqi, referring to the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip. Hamas claims that Egypt is not a "fair intermediary" between it and Fatah, and Al-Faqi didn't really try to find middle ground between the two organizations.

He blamed Hamas for the failure of a reconciliation meeting with Fatah - Hamas decided not to take part a day before. Faqi added that Hamas was responsible for the closing of the Rafah crossing.

Last week Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit added fuel to the fire. "Iran is not concerned about the interests of the Palestinians, it is concerned only about its own interests," he said in response to accusations by former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who claimed that Egypt is preventing the transfer of aid to Gaza and thus cooperating with Israel in closing the Strip.

Egypt sees Hamas and Iran as a single bloc bent on destroying the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). As far as Cairo is concerned, Hamas is not a national Palestinian organization but a branch of the Islamic Republic, meant to expand Iran's sphere of influence in the Middle East.

But while Egypt is trying to withstand public pressure to free Gaza from the economic blockade, Jordan is getting closer to Hamas. This new romance has been conducted clandestinely since Jordanian intelligence director Mohammed al-Dahabi met in August with representatives of Hamas in Jordan, a meeting that of course received the approval of Jordan's King Abdullah and the blessing of Prime Minister Nader al-Dahabi, the intelligence chief's brother.

Abdullah, who about a year ago warned of a "Shi'ite crescent" in the Middle East, suddenly sees Hamas as a way to bolster Jordan's status. How did it happen that two countries that are defined as moderate and have signed peace treaties with Israel have such contradictory views of Hamas?

The answer lies in Jordan's old fear that it will become a Palestinian state. Jordan is furious with Abu Mazen because it was ousted from the negotiations with Israel. The anger grows when Jordan hears him saying that the need to solve the problem of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is at the top of his agenda. Not the refugees in Jordan or those stuck in Syria.

Abdullah is also keeping an eye on Israel and expects the right wing to win the elections in February. As far as the king is concerned, these developments are liable to revive the idea of the "alternative homeland." Jordan would become the Palestinian homeland and have to absorb the refugees from Lebanon - in addition to almost 2 million Palestinian refugees already living in the country.

The way out of this difficult situation is to adopt Hamas. While maintaining the proper caution and suspicion, Jordan prefers a movement that clearly states that the solution to the refugee problem and borders of the future state will not come at Jordan's expense. It prefers a movement that can already constitute a blocking majority against Fatah's diplomatic views, which are liable to harm Jordanian interests.

To the list of their kingdom's fears Jordanian commentators add the United States' resounding failure to reach an agreement of principles by the end of the year. The failure convinced Jordan to take care of itself. "Jordan decided that if a solution of two states for two nations, one Jewish and one Palestinian, is not implemented, it is better off implementing a solution of its own for two states for new nations, one for Jordan and the second for the Palestinians," said a Jordanian observer. "Such a solution requires cooperation with Hamas rather than Fatah."

Can Jordan talk to Hamas without fearing an American or Israeli response? "If Israel is talking to Syria and if Washington is proposing a dialogue with Iran, why shouldn't Jordan speak to Hamas? Isn't it a Palestinian movement? Didn't Israel itself conduct indirect negotiations with Hamas to achieve the cease-fire or try to release [Gilad] Shalit?"

Between Egypt, Syria and Jordan, Hamas has become an organization whose considerations can no longer be limited to the boundaries of the Gaza Strip.

"The cease-fire is not only a tactical means of handling the conflict between us and Israel," a Hamas member in the West Bank told Haaretz. "It relates to the organization's status, to Mahmoud Abbas' term after January 9 [according to Hamas his term ends then], to Hamas' relations with Arab countries, to the chance of finding a channel of rapprochement with the new administration in Washington, and to the expected strategic changes after Barack Obama's election as president."

Hamas thinks there will be dialogue between the organization and the United States, and that Iran is likely to take part in a new dialogue in the region. This means Hamas faces two dangers - and enjoys two opportunities. The dangers are that Syria will sell out Hamas in exchange for relations with Washington, and that Washington, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and most of the Arab League will give Abbas the sponsorship and support necessary to retain his position even after January.

The opportunities are that Washington will agree to talk to Hamas, granting it a new status, and that Syria will use its leverage over Hamas to change the system of government in the territories. Syria, whose relations with Jordan have warmed up lately, will then be able to appear as the one that spurred the national Palestinian reconciliation, rather than Egypt, which has failed dismally thus far.

These diplomatic considerations by Hamas will also dictate the decision on whether to extend the cease-fire or end it, how much firepower should be used against Israel and how to leverage it. Although the pressure on the street due to the economic closure is a problem, the tunnel network transferring goods, weapons and money to the Strip eliminates some of the difficulties and gives the Hamas leadership in Damascus room to maneuver. And to gain time, mainly.