Jordan is Talking To Hamas Again - Should We Care?

15/11/2011 23:47 GMT | Updated 15/01/2012 10:12 GMT

Hamas is quite an unpopular organisation amongst the West and its allies. Yet the Jordanian government, which receives billions of dollars of aid from the US, has recently invited Khaled Mashaal, the Hamas leader whom it expelled ten years ago, for official talks in Amman.

This previously unthinkable policy shift augurs the long-term consequences of recent upheaval in the Middle East, reaching beyond local politics to questions about the West's ability to maintain its influence in the region.

When King Abdullah II of Jordan came to power in 1999, he signalled a shift in the country's allegiance by expelling prominent members of the Hamas leadership, including Mashaal.

The expulsion was interpreted as a response to a number of factors, including US pressure to act against Hamas, the need to strengthen Jordan's uneasy peace with Israel, and the domestic imperative to take a tougher stance against the country's own Islamist movement.

Since then Jordan has remained a cooperative and moderate partner to the US in a region with few friendly faces.

Successive Jordanian governments, appointed by the King, have trod the tricky balance between earning the kingdom's aid dollars and pacifying livid anti-Israeli sentiment amongst its populace - often favouring the former.

Yet the current prime minister, as well as the incumbent at the time, recently called the expulsion of Hamas a mistake.

Mashaal has reportedly been visiting his sick mother in Jordan with an official visit scheduled for some time after Eid. The meeting will be attended by Qatari Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim Ben Hamad, in whose country Hamas leaders found themselves in the new millennium.

This is not a backchannel; this is fully-fledged official chit-chat. Such talks could not take place without the consent, and most likely instruction, of King Abdullah, who stands at the heart of his country's foreign policy.

Why is Jordan's pro-Western leadership about to embark on open discussions with an organisation proscribed as terrorists by the US and EU?

Jordan has been affected by the Arab Spring with continuing protests against the government, corruption, food prices - and of course Israel. But the Hashemite regime has never been in danger, despite the impression sometimes given by international media which lump the quiet Sunni monarchy with turbulent states like Egypt and Tunisia.

Nevertheless, the previous government was crippled by its lack of popular support, made clear by weekly demonstrations centred on the issue of official corruption. Marches and sit-ins have also proven effective at altering government policy on the distribution of constituencies in the forthcoming municipal elections, and in bringing substantial economic benefits to the traditionally loyal cities of the south like Karak and Tafila.

Unrest has encouraged Jordan's leadership to bring about political reform despite the reluctance of tribal leaders and the security apparatus. Recent reform efforts have faltered due to lack of popular support, meaning that if the government is to succeed in its 'national dialogue', the country's widely-supported Islamist movement must be brought on side.

Talking to Hamas is likely to play well with this key demographic, many of whom are of Palestinian origin. When prime minister Awn Khasawneh criticised the expulsion of Hamas, he was speaking at a meeting with the Professional Associations, unions which enjoy close relations with the Islamist movement.

The Jordanian government must also be seen to pursue an active role after the latest developments in the Arab-Israeli conflict which are happening outside of the failed direct negotiations.

Egypt has taken the lead in brokering not only the recent prisoner exchange but also reconciliation between the rival Palestinian factions, with a meeting between Mashaal of Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, scheduled in Cairo later this month. To maintain domestic and international credibility Jordan must be part of this process, bolstered by its leaders' genuine commitment to building a Palestinian state.

These events may well carry wider significance for Arab-Western relations.

If it was partly US influence that led Jordan to banish Hamas in 1999, what has changed? Does Jordan's leadership now fear the emboldened youth and powerful Islamists marching through its streets more than it fears withdrawal of US aid? Does it fear being side-lined in the quest for Palestinian statehood by developments outside of direct negotiations?

Perhaps the government has been given some room to address these concerns by the US, which must realise that a stable government in Amman is vital to its interests and that a Jordanian face at the table with Hamas will promote a more moderate government in Gaza. Or perhaps this is the first crack in US influence amongst its allies in the region.

The answers to these questions depend on the content of the talks that will take place in the coming days and weeks between Jordan and Hamas - watch this space.