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For Hamas, Victory Brings Dilemmas

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
February 8, 2006

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The maneuvering continues between Hamas, newly elected to lead the Palestinian Authority, and Israel. Hamas leader Khalid Meshal said the group would be willing to negotiate with Israel, but only if the Jewish state accepts a series of conditions, including withdrawing to its 1967 borders (BBC). Meanwhile, acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel would give up some settlements in the West Bank, but keep the three largest in an effort to unilaterally set Israel’s borders (NY Times). The conditions set by both sides make it seem unlikely that progress on peace talks will happen any time soon.

Hamas leaders face a range of challenges after their surprise victory. Particularly daunting are the economic realities facing the new government. The PA is dependent upon foreign aid, and is facing the loss of much of it if Hamas does not recognize Israel, cease terrorism, and disarm. Much of this aid comes from Washington: $150 million was earmarked for this year. Together with the threatened loss of EU aid—$335 million in 2005—Hamas is in a bind. Even with former World Bank president James Wolfensohn touring the Persian Gulf to raise funds for the Palestinian economy (JPost), Hamas is now dealing with the demands of shifting from opposition group to ruling party overnight.

Israel agreed to transfer about $55 million in customs duties to the PA over the weekend, but will not repeat the move (LATimes) if Hamas refuses to budge. These customs duties—a legacy of the Oslo Accords—give Israel some leverage. But getting Hamas to listen will remain a challenge (Economist).

Hamas leaders are meeting in Cairo this week to discuss their future. Also at the meeting is Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah movement has so far declined Hamas' requests to join a national unity government (al-Jazeera). But Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki tells cfr.org's Bernard Gwertzman Fatah could still agree to join Hamas' government. Kadura Fares, a Fatah leader, says in a cfr.org interview that Hamas will have only a short time to prove its ability to govern. Some Palestinians fear Hamas’ victory could lead to stricter social controls in the PA (BBC).  

Former U.S. Mideast envoy Dennis Ross argues in the Washington Post that Hamas should get "nothing for free," but Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment warns cutting off all funding could have dire consequences (Foreign Policy). Writing in the forthcoming issue of Foreign Affairs, Israeli Brigadier General Michael Herzog expresses doubt about whether Hamas can "be tamed."

A CFR Background Q&A explains the implications of the Hamas victory, while Dennis Ross and Mideast scholar Aaron David Miller discuss what the year ahead looks like in Israeli-Palestinian relations in this transcript.

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