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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dispatch: Jordan's Warming Ties with Hamas | STRATFOR

Dispatch: Jordan's Warming Ties with Hamas

Analyst Reva Bhalla explains the Jordanian calculation to move toward greater engagement with Palestinian group Hamas.

Editor's Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, STRATFOR cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal is expected to make an official visit to Jordan in the coming days to meet with King Abdullah II. An important shift is taking place in Jordan as the country's leaders are starting to take a much more proactive stance in trying to prevent the backlash of the Arab Spring in countries like Syria and Egypt from threatening the Hashemite Kingdom's hold on power. Though the Jordanian government lives in deep tension with its majority Palestinian population, part of the evolving Jordanian strategy entails making very public steps to improve its relationship with Hamas.

Over the past several weeks, there have been several movements in Jordan that have been very much out of character for the Hashemite regime, yet have been very revealing of how Jordan is viewing the growing uncertainties in its neighborhood. Jordan is preparing for a visit by Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal, who is currently based in Damascus, to make an official visit to Amman along with Qatar's crown prince after Eid al-Adha. In setting the mood for the upcoming visit, Jordanian Prime Minister Awn al-Khasawneh said Oct. 31 that the government's decision in 1999 to expel Hamas leaders, including Khaled Meshaal, was a "constitutional and political mistake."

The Jordanian authorities have a fundamental crisis with the Palestinians. The country's Hashemite rulers were transplanted from the Arabian Peninsula to rule over a territory that is now predominantly inhabited by Palestinians. Jordan thus views groups like Hamas and any bid for Palestinian statehood as a direct threat to the sustainability of the Hashemite monarchy. This is why Jordan has a very healthy relationship with Israel, which shares common cause with the Jordanian government in keeping the Palestinians contained. That said, Jordan does place limits on its relationship with Israel, as it did in 1997, when Jordan saved Meshaal from an Israeli assassination attempt in Amman. Jordan sees the need to continue to engage Islamist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

On the domestic front, Jordan has not been immune to demonstrations inspired by the Arab Spring. Most of the demonstrations have been led by the political arm of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood called the Islamic Action Front. But these demonstrations have been markedly different from those taking place in neighboring Arab countries. Jordan has a much more open relationship with its opposition, and the demonstrations have been pretty contained. The opposition in Jordan is very aware of its limits and is not calling for complete regime change. Still, the government does not feel like it has completely dodged the bullet, and the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood has been pushing in its negotiations with the government to welcome Hamas back to Amman.

Jordan is also looking nervously at the political transition taking place in Egypt. Though Jordan is happy to see the military regime in Egypt maintain control, they can see that the government in Cairo will increasingly have its hands full in trying to contain its domestic opposition while trying to keep Hamas hemmed in in Gaza.

Then there is the situation in Syria, where President Bashar al Assad's political problems are growing. A great deal of tension exists between Jordan and the Syrian regime, which is allied with Iran. But Jordan has also relied on Syria for a long time to play its part in keeping Hamas in check. A lot of Hamas' finances, for example, run through Hamas' politburo, which moved to Damascus in 2001. Now that the Syrian regime is distracted, Jordan is growing concerned about Egypt's and Syria's abilities to keep Hamas in check and is now trying to take matters into its own hands. Jordan also shares an interest with Egypt in trying to distance Hamas from Iran's orbit of influence and deny Iran a strong foothold in the Levant. On the home front, Jordan's government can also use improving ties with Hamas to gain credibility with the country's Islamist opposition.

But Hamas also comes with a lot of baggage. Though Jordan and Israel continue to cooperate very closely, Jordan does not necessarily want to be held responsible by Israel for Hamas' militant actions. Jordan and Israel also do not want to give Hamas an opportunity to gain a strong foothold in Fatah-controlled West Bank, from which it could threaten both Jordan and Israel. Still, Jordan may be contemplating the old adage of "keeping friends close and enemies closer" in making these positive gestures toward Hamas.

Hamas is also weighing the merits of warming ties with Jordan. The group understands that Jordan's intelligence and security apparatus works in very tight coordination with Israel and the United States and will be doing whatever it can to clamp down on Hamas' movements. Hamas is looking for a new home, and the Jordanian government may be seriously looking at the prospect of laying out the welcome mat for Hamas for its own strategic interests.

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