Amid revolutionary change in the Middle East, the forces of political Islam have scored one electoral victory after another. As the West grapples with the rapid rise of moderate Islamists in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, the issue of Hamas’ role in the Palestinian territories looms large.

The signing of a new unity deal between Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ secular Fatah party earlier this month has heightened an unprecedented struggle within Hamas over its future course as an Islamist movement. How the West responds could very well influence the outcome.

As events in recent weeks have proven, Hamas’ days of near-total isolation in the Middle East are over. While most Western governments continue to consider it a terrorist organization, in Arab capitals, political embargoes have given way to engagement.

In December, Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority in Gaza, embarked on a tour of the Mediterranean that included stops in Tunis, Cairo and Istanbul. In mid-February, he was warmly received in Qatar, Bahrain and Iran. This political outreach, however, has not emanated solely from Gaza.

In January, Khaled Mashal, the leader of Hamas’ Damascus-based political bureau, embarked on a diplomatic initiative of his own, and was hosted by King Abdullah of Jordan — the first such visit in more than a decade. In February, Mashal crowned these efforts in Qatar with the signing of the new unity agreement with Fatah, which commits both Palestinian movements to a transitional government under Abbas’ leadership.

Ever since, disagreements within Hamas have been escalating, pitting the movement’s diaspora leadership against the Hamas-led Gaza administration, which has openly rejected the unity deal. While personal ambitions certainly play a role in the tensions, what lies at the core is a fundamental conflict over Hamas’ character.

Haniyeh, who represents the conservative wing of Gaza’s Hamas leadership, has sought to cash in on regional changes. His long-boycotted government was thrown a lifeline by regime change in Egypt and the opening of the border with Gaza.

Notably, Haniyeh’s recent diplomatic tour garnered not only symbolic recognition for Hamas, but also support for his uncompromising stance vis-a-vis Israel.

He missed no opportunity to criticize “futile” peace negotiations, and, in Tehran, he pledged that Hamas’ “resistance” would continue “until all Palestinian land has been liberated.”

What that means needs little clarification. In a further telling move, Haniyeh also recently suggested merging Hamas with the Islamic Jihad movement, which continues to target Israeli civilians with rockets fired from Gaza.

Mashal, by contrast, has come to represent a force for change. Last May, he signed an initial reconciliation agreement with Fatah in Cairo, which committed Hamas to a Palestinian unity government, called for a cessation of violence, and accepted the notion of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders.

Mashal also offered Abbas a one-year mandate for negotiations with Israel, and, unlike Haniyeh, supported recent Israeli-Palestinian “exploratory talks” in Jordan.

One reason for Mashal’s change of heart can be found in the ongoing popular revolt in Syria against President Bashar Assad. The leader of the Sunni Hamas can no longer support his Syrian host, who has cracked down on the Sunni-dominated opposition. Thus, Mashal has attempted to close ranks with Fatah, and is seeking to move Hamas’ diaspora headquarters from Damascus — a powerful symbol of his efforts at re-invention.

But Mashal’s refusal to support Assad has not only forced him to relocate. It has also unleashed the wrath of Syria’s ally, Iran, which has responded by scaling down its financial support for Hamas — thus denying Mashal a key source of influence within the movement.

Indeed, Mashal’s decision has effectively ended his ties to his two most important allies, thereby not only weakening his position, but also increasing his readiness to embrace political moderation.

Tensions increased dramatically when Mashal signed the unity agreement with Fatah, after stating his intention to resign as head of the political bureau. While that announcement may have been political blackmail aimed at forcing Gaza into line, it underscored Mashal’s confidence in his popularity, which has since been vindicated by expressions of support from both within and outside of the political bureau for him to remain in charge.

Mashal has more than one option. He may re-emerge as the head of a newly established Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, or as a leader of a new Islamist political party under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Such a merging of Hamas with the established Palestinian political organizations would signify Hamas’ formal acceptance of a two-state solution, and would mark an important step in transforming the movement.

For the West, using the opportunity to influence Hamas’ future course requires modifying the failed policy of all-encompassing rejection.

As in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, Islamist moderates in the Palestinian territories need to be engaged as a legitimate political force. Leaders such as Mashal, who has expressed a readiness to forsake alliances with Syria and Iran and to accept a two-state solution with Israel, should be bolstered rather than boycotted. That means supporting the ongoing effort to form an interim Palestinian government of technocrats, as stipulated in the Qatar agreement.

At times, such an approach will be challenging; Hamas will undoubtedly prove to be a difficult counterpart. But the United States, European governments and Israel should take this opportunity to engage Hamas’ moderates and test their flexibility. In the new Middle East, the West’s current approach will only strengthen the hardliners in Gaza and elsewhere.

Michael Broning is director of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftungin Jerusalem, a political foundation affiliated with Germany’s opposition Social Democratic Party, and the author of “The Politics of Change in Palestine.” © 2012 Project Syndicate

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