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Hamas, Palestinians Sign Unity Agreement


Events in Syria have also influenced the Palestinians. The external leadership of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, has been based in the Syrian capital, Damascus. But with Syrian Islamists rebelling against the Assad regime, Hamas and its leader there, Khaled Meshal, are now looking for a new home. Meshal has traveled recently to Jordan and to Qatar, and he's reached a political truce with Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the rival Palestinian movement, Fatah. They've agreed to Abbas leading an interim government until elections this year.

Well, to sort out what all that may mean for the Palestinians and for the larger region, we turn now to Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab, who's in the Jordanian capital, Amman. Welcome to the program once again.

DAOUD KUTTAB: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: First, there have been truces between the big Palestinian movements Fatah and Hamas before, and they've fallen apart. Is this one any different?

KUTTAB: Yes, this one is different. They have been deadlocked for months about who will be the interim prime minister until there's elections in May. And the Fatah movement wanted Salam Fayyad, and the Islamists didn't want Salam Fayyad. So the idea that Mahmoud Abbas, who has announced that he will not run for any elections anymore, as the interim prime minister as well as the president seems to be a good and kind of compromise.

SIEGEL: Now, Fatah's truce with Hamas has led Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu to warn Mahmoud Abbas you can't have peace both with Israel and with Hamas which refuses to accept Israel's existence. Hamas leaders still oppose talks with Israel. Their charter remains very anti-Israel, even parts of it anti-Semitic. Do this smoke signal any change within Hamas?

KUTTAB: Hamas has been softening its position for some time. They've indirectly accepted Israel on the '67 Borders, and they've announced that that they are no longer going to try to liberate the West Bank and Gaza through violent means but through nonviolent means. So they have been easing off on the radical rhetoric. But in the interim period, there is no Hamas members who are going to be in the new government.

SIEGEL: One reading of Mahmoud Abbas' move here is that this might cost him the prospect of any progress toward a deal with Israel. But there's no progress anyway, so why not proceed? Is that an accurate reading?

KUTTAB: That's absolutely true, and that's an accurate reading. There is nothing going on in the prospect of the negotiations. Israel still refuses to suspend their settlement building. They have refused to declare clearly where they think the borders should be for the Palestinians State. And until the election cycle continues in Israel and the U.S. in this year, nobody expects major changes.

SIEGEL: If, in fact, Hamas is not as close today to Syria as it was fairly recently, and not as close to Iran as it was until recently, does that mean that the campaign against Iran - the sanctions against Iran, the alliance of Sunni Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia along with the United States against Iran - that that's having some effect on the Palestinian movement?

KUTTAB: I think, certainly, the reconciliation with Fatah has improved. And the fact that Hamas is the one who nominated Mahmoud Abbas to be the head of the interim government are signs that Hamas is softening its position and aligning itself more with the Gulf countries rather than Iran.

SIEGEL: Which gives some sense of what their reading of the near-term future might be in the region.

KUTTAB: Yeah. I think Syria is no longer a reasonably safe headquarters for them. I mean, it's a kind of a win and loss, because they are losing Syria as a capital, but they're also winning friends in the Islamist movements in different countries, including possibly Syria but also Egypt and other countries. So it's a bag of mixed blessings in the sense that they have probably more friends and leadership in the Arab world, but in return, they would have to kind of cut off their relationship with Iran to keep those friends happy.

SIEGEL: Daoud Kuttab, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

KUTTAB: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: Daoud Kuttab is director general of Pen Media, that's a Palestinian media NGO. He's based in Amman, the capital of Jordan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.