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Is Tony Blair setting a trap for Hamas?

Reports have trickled out over the summer that Israel and Hamas are engaged in indirect negotiations in Doha. The reports, some of which have originated with Middle East Eye, say that the talks have been facilitated by Tony Blair, and are aimed at establishing a long-term ceasefire in exchange for a lifting of the siege on Gaza and other conditions.

MEE first reported this in June, based on anonymous “European and independent Palestinian sources”. Since then, Blair has reportedly met with top Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal several times. The latest revelation is that Blair had even made an offer to Meshaal for a visit to London and that this offer was made with the knowledge of Prime Minister David Cameron himself.

A significant related development over the summer has been Meshaal’s attempt to reconcile with the Saudi royals. This has been met with mixed results.

Meshaal’s visit to the kingdom in July received, at best, a lukewarm welcome. According to Al Monitor, Meshaal managed to secure a very brief meeting with the king, the crown prince and the deputy crown prince Prince Mohammed bin Salman (who is also the minister of defence).

But he did manage to secure a further, 20-minute meeting with Prince Mohammed. As a result of this meeting, eight Hamas members who had been arrested after fund-raising in the kingdom were released.

This diplomatic outreach by Hamas comes as part of a thawing of relations between the Saudi royals and the Palestinian Islamic resistance movement since the last king, Abdullah, died in January. King Salman is reportedly less hostile to Hamas and to its idealogical compatriots in the Muslim Brotherhood than his predecessor. Therefore, Hamas has sensed an opportunity for reconciliation.

This attempt to thaw these icy relations has been ongoing in one form or another for a while. After the Arab uprisings of 2011, some Hamas leaders signalled, or implied, to the Saudis that they would be willing to move away from their reliance on Iranian support if only Sunni Arab governments were willing to arm them in the same way the Iranians have done for years.

These appeals fell on stony ground.

After all, the Saudi royals are ultimately part of the picture of American regional hegemony. The US, which is of course closely linked to Israel, would veto any such Saudi backing of Hamas’ military wing. It is therefore unclear if Hamas seriously expects to receive military backing from the Saudis. It seems unlikely; Hamas’ leadership tends to have a more realistic analysis than that.

So these attempts at diplomatic rapprochement are likely instead aimed at pushing for more modest gains, such as the release of the right Hamas members. According to MEE, the talks with the Saudis also convinced them to pressure the Egyptian military regime (which has warm relations with their Saudi sponsors) into dropping the “terrorist” designation that a court had farcically slapped in Hamas.

In that sense Hamas is playing a smart diplomatic game,

But the movement has some internal tensions. Although foreign media, especially Israeli media, tend to overplay these difference for their own reasons, there is certainly internal debate in the movement, which has a collective leadership.

The military wing, led by Muhammd Deif, is said to favour closer ties with Iran, since is is the Islamic Republic which sends weapons to the movement in Gaza. Also involved in training and other military support is Hezbollah, the Lebanese resistance movement.

But political differences between Iran (and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah) and Hamas over the civil wars in Syira and now Yemen have led to a cooling of relations, even as Hamas’s relations with the Saudis improves (albeit only marginally).

It seems likely, then, that it is precisely this tension between Riyadh and Tehran within Hamas which Tony Blair is seeking to exploit in these new indirect “peace” negotiations.

Far from being a neutral broker, Blair has long been a committed supporter of Israel, and these talks appear to have got a nod-and-a-wink from Netanyahu, even as his government denies they are taking place.

It seems clear that Blair would like to peel Hamas off from the Iran-Hizballah-Syria alliance altogether. Over the last few years, since the uprisings of 2011, as the Syrian uprising, and then civil war, raged, Iran and Hizballah took on a stronger and stronger pro-Assad stance, with Hizballah eventually intervening militarily (particularly in manoeuvres against al-Qaida forces in the south west of Syria).

Hamas leaders, on the other hand, made only vague statements about being on the side of the Syrian people. Some armed Hamas supporters in Syria (usually part of the long-standing Palestinian refugee community there), have reportedly fought against both the regime and against Syrian rebels at different times.

But the Hamas leadership, sensitive to the negative historical consequences of taking sides in the affairs of other Arab governments, has distanced itself from these supporters (such as the Aknaf Beir al-Maqdis group based in Yarmouk camp, which has fought against the “Islamic State” and against al-Qaida, as well as the regime).

Seeing as Hamas’ popular Palestinian support is largely derived from its effectiveness as a legitimate military resistance movement to Israeli occupation, it seems unlikely that Blair will succeed in his aim to neuter the movement, even if Hamas would, ultimately, be more comfortable with a different military sponsor.

An associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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