Circus of the Dancing Bears

The Hamas-Fatah unity agreement is a dangerous game -- and a gift to Israel's right wing.

The late Yitzhak Rabin used to say that the only problem with dancing with a bear is that once you start, you can never let go.

Watching the current Hamas-Fatah unity circus, I can't help but think of Rabin's comment. For the former Israeli prime minister, Yasir Arafat was the bear and the Oslo process was their choreographed dance. Rabin was no sentimentalist and he recognized Arafat's many weaknesses as a partner, but he continued to engage with him because he believed his counterpart had taken tough positions. Oslo was a good faith effort to achieve a goal.

The Hamas-Fatah unity gambit signed on Wednesday in Cairo isn't about good faith, consequential agreements, nor is it about peacemaking. The forging of Palestinian unity is a product of narrower calculations of two key parties -- Fatah and Hamas -- who are looking for a way to improve their respective positions during a very turbulent and uncertain period. This is an instance of two bears dancing with one another. Israel is right to be wary.

There's a certain logic to this diplomacy. But the problem of course is what the CIA calls blowback -- unintended consequences that return with unpredictable and usually negative results. The Fatah-Hamas accord is unlikely to produce either unity or improve prospects for peacemaking; indeed, along the way it could actually make serious negotiations and a settlement harder to achieve.

Hamas's calculations in seeking unity are perhaps the easier to read than those of Fatah. They're driven by a mix of motives: In Gaza, despite improved order and security, Hamas hasn't delivered economically. Gaza remains for a million and half Palestinians a variation of what it's been for some time now -- a small and confining prison where economic, political, and movement horizons are constrained by Israeli border closures and poor Palestinian governance.

As for Hamas, a nominally revolutionary organization, its message has grown old and tired. Against the backdrop of a largely young and secular Arab Spring, its Islamist trope isn't all that compelling any more. Nor was armed struggle ever a terribly resonant tactic if the goal was to improve the lives of Palestinians in Gaza. In fact, quite the opposite -- it had a Kevorkian death-wish quality to it, as revealed by Hamas's willingness to risk Israel's invasion of Gaza in 2008-2009. Hamas's leaders could have taken advantage of tensions with Israel along the border last month to go back to the battlefield. They wisely chose not to -- they know better now. You can't eat or pay for food with myths and symbols of struggle. Hamas's leaders are now worried, looking in the rearview mirror, and wondering how long it may take the Arab Spring to come to their portion of Palestine.

And then there's the Syrian angle. One of Hamas's two major patrons is now confronted with potentially regime-changing turmoil. Not only are there now reports that Hamas's external leadership is looking for a new home outside of Damascus, but their association with two regimes (Syria and Iran) that are gunning down their own citizens in the streets isn't an endearing image for the Palestinian public. Unity with Fatah and making nice with Egypt (which brokered the agreement) is a strategic move for the short term -- at least until it is clear where the dust is settling in Syria.

The calculations of Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah are somewhat harder to read, but still transparent. According to those close to him, the Palestinian Authority (PA) president was surprised by Hamas's decision to go for unity -- and he made sure the deal was done on his terms. (Abbas remains as president of the PA and head of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization.) But Abbas also had a stake in keeping the new Egyptian government and perhaps also the Saudis -- long fans of unity -- happy too.

More to the point, Abbas has concluded that no negotiations with Israel are likely now, and that U.S. President Barack Obama isn't going to do much to support him. So he's broken out on his own with a U.N. statehood gambit geared for September. But it's hard to go the international community and claim virtual statehood over the West Bank and Gaza when a rival Palestinian faction is controlling the latter half and using the territory to shoot rockets at Israelis.

Whether Abbas thinks Hamas would actually support such an initiative is dubious, but for now it buys him some domestic political space and temporary acquiescence from Hamas. The peace process and the U.N. statehood gambit weren't part of the intra-Palestinian negotiations. Abbas is still in charge of both portfolios and can do what he wants -- if only because neither side truly believes they'll amount to much.

All of this seems so logical -- and yet the traps are as compelling as the seeming advantages. First, it's not clear how any real power sharing can work. These political rivals, with their bloody history, are now somehow supposed to establish a technocratic government, prepare for national elections, and assume joint responsibility for security -- even though they don't share any real trust or ideology. This isn't just a matter of competition over seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. Hamas and Fatah have different visions for what and where Palestine should be.

Second, Abbas is also sacrificing his longstanding goal of winning the hearts and minds of the international community. Shackling himself to Hamas and its extremist, anti-Semitic statements undermines his international credibility. Abbas will try to resist this association -- Hamas's Prime Minister Ismail Haniya praised Osama bin Laden this week as a martyr, while Abbas took the opposite tack -- but that equivocation won't be sustainable when the two are actually governing together.

The same problem will occur with regard to armed struggle. Hamas will have to abandon its violent political platform or risk putting Abbas into the position of having to condemn his governing partner. The moment of truth is likely to come soon. It's almost inconceivable the Israel-Gaza border will be free of violence over the next six months, given the track record.

Third, there's the pesky problem of the international assistance. Even if, on the American side, the legal hurdles of assisting the PA (with Hamas supporting the government) can be finessed, it's unlikely the politics will be manageable. The Obama administration will be in a position -- like Abbas -- of having to explain away every Hamas statement and action. That's just not tenable.

Finally, there are the Israelis. This unity deal is not just a birthday present to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and those to his right, but a gift that will keep on giving. How can anyone say to Israelis that they have to negotiate with -- much less make concessions to -- a Palestinian government, half of which won't recognize Israel or lay down its arms? Yes, it's fair to point out that the current peace process wasn't going anywhere anyway; but what Abbas is doing now is helping the Israeli delegitimize Palestinians as putative partners. Guilt by association is still a very effective conceit in Middle Eastern politics.

For now, Palestinian unity seems like the right play for the parties involved; but it has a sense about it of being too clever by half. We'll see as the anomalies and contradictions of this latest marriage of convenience play out. One thing is clear: Anyone who wants to even touch the peace process during this period better be prepared for a dangerous dance. It's going to require some very fancy footwork to avoid some serious stumbles with the new Palestinian dancing partner.


Wanted: Charismatic Terror Mastermind. Some Travel Required.

How will al Qaeda pick its new leader?

As speculation about al Qaeda's leadership succession mounts in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death, the answer to who will assume control next lies in the organization's rules and regulations -- like those of any good corporation. Written and reviewed by a group of senior leaders, some of whom may now be poised to assume new positions within al Qaeda, they provide insight into how this critical transition will be handled, and will factor heavily into who is selected to move up the leadership ladder.

Al Qaeda's organizational protocols (some earlier versions of which are available at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point) make clear that a chain of succession exists. In the event of the capture or death of al Qaeda's emir (leader), power automatically transfers to the deputy emir (currently Ayman al-Zawahiri), with a executive council vote  to follow -- confirming his permanent election to the position, or selecting another leader. If both the emir and his deputy are killed or captured, power temporarily goes to the head of the executive council (again with a vote following to confirm his leadership or select another member). The executive council is compromised of the emir and his deputy, as well as senior leaders from al Qaeda, usually those who head up a section in the organization, such as the military, security, or administration branches. It is a small body, probably now comprised of only a handful of members, although it once numbered around 10 when al Qaeda was safely ensconced in Afghanistan. It is from within this body that a new emir would be chosen if Zawahiri and his new deputy were to be killed or captured or otherwise deemed unfit to lead.

For good reason, al Qaeda has not pushed many of the leaders who hold these positions into the limelight. It has instead built its image around those already holding a public profile, while introducing some new second-generation leaders, such as Abu Yahya al-Libi, who are charismatic and can call others to join in the fight while defending the organization from criticism.

However, while the remaining first-generation figures may not exactly be household names, the United States now presumably has a wealth of new intelligence and operational notes garnered from bin Laden's compound in Abottabad, Pakistan. Already, U.S. intelligence assets will have compiled substantial information on senior figures and their possible locations, communications practices, and potentially, their operational taskings. But exploiting this information won't be so easy. Following bin Laden's capture, al Qaeda will have gone into communication lock down. The requirement of a vote electing Zawahiri to the leadership position, which requires risking communications at a particularly dangerous time, is thus likely to be dispensed with.

A formal announcement on the new leader from al Qaeda figures in Pakistan and Afghanistan may also take some time to materialize, if one comes at all. It is thus more likely that senior al Qaeda figures in other locations with historical ties to bin Laden and who have given him an oath of allegiance will be the first to release statements recognizing Zawahiri as the organization's new leader. Recognition may come from Sayf al-Adl, who is believed to be the head of al Qaeda's military council, and Abu Hafs al Mauritani, the former head of al Qaeda's shariah council (both of whom are believed to be in Iran), or the emir of al Qaeda's Arabian Peninsula branch (AQAP), Nasir al-Wahishi, who reportedly served for a time as bin Laden's personal secretary. The leaders of al Qaeda's two franchises in the Maghreb and Iraq, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud and Abu Suleiman respectively, may also follow suit.

This would relieve the pressure on al Qaeda's Pakistan- and Afghanistan-based leaders as they struggle to contain the fallout of bin Laden's death, preserve their own safety, and maintain operational momentum. Although Adl and Mauritani may remain in Iran, it is still possible that they may assume a more active leadership position, either as a deputy or as part of the executive council or its subsidiary bodies. Al Qaeda's councils have operated virtually since late 2001, when the organization took flight from Afghanistan and its senior leadership dispersed; any votes or oaths of allegiance to an emir can be given by proxy to other senior figures or communicated to the leadership via courier. In the case of oaths, a public statement is allowed. But it is important to note that membership oaths are to the position of emir, not to the person himself. After bin Laden's death, these pledges of allegiance have automatically passed to Zawahiri -- at least in the interim, and it is likely they will be more formally reaffirmed in the coming weeks and months.

It's tempting to speculate about rivalry, infighting, splinter groups emerging or a more youthful leader taking the reins, but for now unity will prevail: Al Qaeda's primary interest is in surviving and moving forward in the wake of its leader's killing. While Zawahiri may not be the most well liked or magnetic figure within al Qaeda, he has served as No. 2 for over a decade, and substituted for bin Laden in not only approving and coordinating larger-scale attacks but also in dealing with its franchises. He is known and trusted, and loyalty to the emir is heavily emphasized within many militant Salafist groups, including al Qaeda. These factors will count far more in the short term than any of Zawahiri's negative character traits or disagreements over the organization's long-term direction.

It's also tempting to identify others who may have designs on the leadership: Abu Yahya al-Libi and Atiyah abd al-Rahman, both Libyans who have risen in al Qaeda's ranks in recent years and featured heavily in its propaganda productions, or Anwar al-Awlaki, the American born radical cleric whose appeal to English-speaking converts is particularly potent, have often been referred to as the rising stars of al Qaeda. Awlaki is a nonstarter. He's not a member of the core al Qaeda organization and has no historical links to bin Laden. He's also a relative newcomer to AQAP, and his formal affiliation and/or degree of seniority is also unclear. Most importantly, he lacks military experience and stature within the broader Arabic-speaking militant milieu.

As for the Libyan rising stars, or any other potential leadership contenders within al Qaeda, it is doubtful they have shown designs on the position of emir, Indeed, a key aspect governing the selection of the emirs of all ranks is the specification that those who "seek authority" or are "anxious to be an emir" should not be appointed to these positions.

So, for the short term, and for as long as he can avoid death or capture, Zawahiri will be the emir of al Qaeda. But who will be his deputy? It's possible that operational security restrictions may mean that one is not appointed immediately. This would represent a key vulnerability for al Qaeda's leadership. If the intelligence garnered from bin Laden's compound results in a domino effect -- perhaps with the killing or capture of Zawahiri and a number of other senior figures -- the picture could be a lot murkier at the top of the al Qaeda food chain.

Here the United States may find that its aerial strikes in Pakistan have never been more useful. With even more limited communications between al Qaeda figures, aerial strikes will add to the confusion -- al Qaeda's followers and perhaps even its own members may find themselves unable to immediately confirm who remains alive and in charge. But this is still conjecture. We don't yet know the scope of the intelligence haul or how long it will take to materialize into targeting operations.

The impetus on the United States, though, will be to act as quickly as possible to sow confusion and capitalize on the initiative it now has; likewise, al Qaeda will be going to ground immediately. In this respect, the status quo within al Qaeda will stand. As the new emir, Zawahiri and the leadership around him will likely attempt to continue business as usual and in doing so stamp their authority on the organization. The most visible and effective means of maintaining unity in the ranks will be to carry out more attacks on the West.

Al Qaeda's external-operations section is the most compartmentalized within the organization, and thus may be able to maintain some operational momentum. However, should it be compromised, operatives who are already deployed to conduct attacks have the necessary permissions to move forward. AQAP also not only has the capacity to plan and conduct more attacks against the West, but already has the permissions from al Qaeda's core leadership to operate beyond its own theater of operations and target the United States. A squeezing of the balloon effect is therefore likely in the short term.

However, Zawahiri is nothing if not determined. He's also unlikely to want to relinquish his role in overseeing al Qaeda's external operations. And his one known vulnerability, like bin Laden before him, is his chronic tendency to micromanage. This leaves him open to meeting the same violent end as his former boss, and the organization he now provisionally runs potentially in further disarray.

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images